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The cult of the therapeutic

The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth (25th Anniversary Edition), by M. Scott Peck, Simon & Schuster: 318 pp., $22.95

October 13, 2002|Reed Johnson | Reed Johnson is a Times staff writer.

America was suffering a severe case of the spiritual blahs when the first 5,000 copies of M. Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled" rolled off the press in 1978. The reasons weren't hard to grasp: Oil shocks. A failed Southeast Asian war. Grand social experiments discarded or discredited. Soaring inflation. A president driven from the White House in disgrace. To that dismal list you could add silly clothes and breathtakingly inane pop tunes.

Many in the country felt distrustful and dispirited, yet too weary to begin the arduous task of reversing what President Carter termed the national "malaise." Such a cultural impasse cried out for a healer, a prophet, and into this wilderness strode Morgan Scott Peck, a 40-year-old Harvard-educated psychiatrist with a rigorous intellect, a flair for penning pithy sentences and his index finger squarely on the pulse of the national zeitgeist.

Like Soren Kierkegaard, Peck sensed a sickness in the Western soul and set out to propose a cure. In his briskly written book, subtitled "A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth," he laid out not only a prescription for individual mental health but also a template for what he implied could be a national spiritual and moral reawakening. Arguing that humanity's last, best hope lay in love, which he formulated as "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth," Peck urged his countrymen to face their personal and collective demons head on, rather than try to skate past them.

He offered no quick fixes or placebos, no "I'm OK-You're OK" mental-health consolation prize. Instead he argued that we must adhere to an endlessly painful and challenging, yet ultimately rewarding, path of self-scrutiny, honesty and spiritual vigilance. Mankind's "original sin," Peck postulated in almost preacherly cadences, was "laziness," the obstinacy or lack of courage that prevented individuals from owning up to their obligations to themselves and others. The "tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness," he wrote.

Quoting everyone from T.S. Eliot and Eldridge Cleaver to John Denver and citing the My Lai massacre and the Watergate cover-up, Peck warned that denying the truth and clinging to "outdated maps" of reality is the bane of nations no less than of individuals.

"The Road Less Traveled," which is being re-released this month in a 25th anniversary edition, showcased Peck's Freud-like capacity to cull and synthesize ideas from a variety of areas (art, history, mythology), make anecdotal use of his patients' case histories and write in a way that is both eloquent and entertaining.

But his book stood out from the throng of '70s touchy-feely self-help manuals for a more controversial reason. In the second half of "The Road Less Traveled," Peck sought to advance his thesis beyond psychology into theology. While acknowledging a link between an austere, guilt-ridden religious upbringing and certain forms of psychopathology, he asserted that the quest for self-awareness led inexorably toward God -- or at least to the desire to forge a relationship with a more "personal" God.

By nurturing spiritual growth in ourselves and others, he wrote, we are instinctively reaching toward the divine. Only by striving to emulate God's higher state of being could we hope to overcome the laziness and delusions that make us slaves to Satan.

For Peck, these Judeo-Christian personifications weren't merely metaphors. "We must ultimately belong either to God or the devil," he wrote in a phrase that must have raised a few of his colleagues' eyebrows.

A student of Zen Buddhism who later would convert to nondenominational Christianity, Peck wanted to take a sledgehammer to the wall dividing Reason from Spirituality, a barrier dating from the 18th century Enlightenment that towered over American liberal thought in the post-World War II period. "This beginning possibility of unification of religion and science is the most significant and exciting happening in our intellectual life today," Peck enthused.

A spiritually malnourished American public gobbled up Peck's prescriptions like peanut butter protein bars. "The Road Less Traveled" has sold millions of copies worldwide, been translated into at least 20 languages and set a longevity record for paperbacks on the New York Times bestseller list, while earning Peck the title of "national shrink." It also has spawned numerous sequels, including "People of the Lie" and "The Road Less Traveled and Beyond." Building on word of mouth, the book got a major boost from Alcoholics Anonymous and Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. Publishing sales figures show it's been a big mover in the Bible Belt.

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