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Book Review-The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth

I view the life I’m living as a journey. (See Changes that Heal for more about viewing life as a journey.) In this journey I believe that I’m trying to learn how to become a better me. That means learning how to love more genuinely and how to accept reality more completely. The Road Less Traveled is like the journal of a man who has already walked this path. He’s someone who has invested his life in showing others how to walk a road that few are willing to walk. This road is a road paved in hardships and learning. It’s lined with trials, failures, and successes. In short, the road is a hard road.


Life is Hard

One of the favorite laments of my adult children is “Being an adult is hard.” It’s said with the awareness that doing the right thing, that growing, that becoming a better person is the right path – but it’s a path that few people travel. When they share this sentiment is when I remember that life is hard – or that is when you live life to its fullest, it’s hard. Hidden somewhere in the message is, the awareness that the growth and the pain are worth it.

Somewhere along the way with our parents picking us up and kissing our skinned knee most of us have developed the impression that all pain is bad. However, pain is an evolutionary signal. It’s a warning but not necessarily that we should stop. Athletes feel pain during the training process as a way of letting them know that they’re tearing down their muscles so that they can be rebuilt stronger.

Pain ultimately means growth and growth is hard. Life can be hard. However, life is hard when it’s a life worth living. It’s hard when you’re not content to allow the world to shape you – without you shaping it back at least a little. Shaping your life requires discipline.

Put Out the Fire

Defining Discipline

In The Fifth Discipline the word discipline refers to what the dictionary calls “a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education.” In the Four Disciplines of Execution the other dictionary definition is used “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior…” However, neither conveys the meaning of self-discipline or how to know when you have it.

Peck suggests that there are four keys to discipline:

  • Delaying Gratification – Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment is the classic way to measure the ability to delay gratification. (See Emotional Intelligence for more on this test.) In order for children (or adults) to be able to delay gratification they have to believe the world is safe. (See How Children Succeed for secure detachment.)
  • Accepting Responsibility – We should accept responsibility for the things that we control – for our behavior. Conversely we shouldn’t accept responsibility for things that are outside of our control. Victims struggle to accept responsibility for their situation. (A good place to start for more on victimhood is Choice Theory.)
  • Dedication to Truth – Constantly seeking the truth is harder than it seems. There are “boxes” that we end up in (a la Anatomy of Peace) and our persnickety ego that prevents us from seeing clearly. (See Change or Die for more on our ego’s defenses.)
  • Balancing – Everything in excess or absence is bad for us. In food we become obese or anorexic. In religion we become amoral or a zealot. The final component of discipline is maintaining consideration for multiple conflicting factors and finding a path through them.

Peck’s four part definition of what he means when he says discipline is like the way that How Children Succeed
uses the word grit. It’s also reminiscent of the way that Jim Collins in Good to Great speaks of the Stockdale Paradox – where you’ve got to be persistent with your ideas – and be flexible and adaptable to know when they need to change. Marketing books like Guerrilla Marketing and The New Rules of Marketing and PR speak of commitment and patience for programs. Sticking with something long enough to ensure that it works. Sometimes the waiting for things to get better while you’re continuing to try to push things forward can be excruciatingly painful.

Satisfactory Suffering

Suffering is a part of our human condition. No one has ever been able to completely escape suffering. Even a baby fresh out of the womb is made to suffer so they’ll cry. Suffering is generally considered to be a negative thing. We see suffering and we want to eliminate it. However, it’s suffering that is the fire in which great men (and women) are formed.

Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln is widely regarded as one of the worst first ladies. She was known to be difficult to get along with. Abraham Lincoln suffered numerous failures in his life. He came from humble beginnings and yet with all this suffering he is widely believed to have been America’s best president. Perhaps that is backwards. It’s not in spite of the suffering that he was our best president but because of it.

Find your Courage disagrees with the use of the word suffering here by drawing a distinction between pain which is unavoidable and suffering which is dwelling on that pain. However, suffering is a sustained presence of pain whether or not you choose to dwell on it or not.

How to Be an Adult in Relationships, however, say that suffering is necessary for growth. The Happiness Hypothesis quotes Romans 5:3-4 “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” and the Dalai Lama “The person who has had more experience of hardships can stand more firmly in the face of problems than the person who has never experienced suffering. From this angle, then, some suffering can be a good lesson for life.”

So we cannot escape suffering. We have only to decide what we’re going to do with our suffering. We have to decide whether we’re going to crumble under its weight or use the suffering to grow. Sometimes knowing how we’re going to deal with our suffering is all about what kind of an animal we want to be.

Skunks, Turtles, and Working through Problems

In my review of Compelled to Control, I mentioned the idea of Skunks and Turtles and the harm that can befall turtles as they struggle to keep it all in – never fully processing their pain. The reality is that our problems rarely (if ever) disappear on their own. Most of the time we need to take some sort of action to take our pains and work through them. We can’t be like the skunk spewing the poison of our problems (suffering) on to others. Nor can we be the turtle pretending that problems don’t exist.

Somehow we’ve got to get past the point of intense and unwavering pain so that we can become a wise owl asking questions of ourselves and finding ways to convert our pain and suffering into something good.

Much of our pain comes from how we relate to the world. Our pain comes because we expect something different from the world than it is able to give to us. We all operate from a set of internal maps that guide us through this world and sometimes those maps are wrong and cause us to bump into the walls of reality.

Mental Cartography

3D Spatial reasoning is one category of intelligence. It refers to someone’s ability to arrange things in three dimensional space. It’s sort of a measure of your ability to make accurate maps in your mind of three dimensional space. It happens to be something that I’m relatively good at. I can put together the pieces of furniture and see if they’ll fit in a room or estimate the distance between two locations in the city with relative accuracy. So in this I’m creating the mental models (See Sources of Power) or schemas (See Efficiency in Learning for more about schemas) to allow me to navigate through the real world.

The problem isn’t that I create these maps. In fact, as Incognito pointed out we all make maps of the world – we don’t “see” the world completely and directly, our brain builds an image – a sometimes faulty image. However, we believe this image to be true. We build mental models for lots of things. It’s our mental models – or our mental maps – that shape our beliefs about the world and how it will react.

A poor mental model is the cause of a great deal of pain. Where our view of the world and the reality of the world are misaligned we’ll not see things and we’ll stub our toe on a chair or a dog. Thus it’s important to have accurate mental maps – but they are always flawed. It takes some conscious effort to continue to revise the mental maps that we have to more accurately reflect reality.

The problem of correcting our mental maps isn’t so much about adding new things to our maps as it is letting go of previously held beliefs. We have to realize that we aren’t the center of the universe or the solar system. We have to recognize that no amount of desiring the world to be flat will make it so. Sometimes we’ve just got to let go.

Letting Go

What parts of your life have you let go of? Most of us have parts of ourselves that we’ve let go of. Sometimes we’ve let go forever and sometimes we’ve just let go of it for a time. It’s been over a year since I’ve piloted an aircraft (flown). It’s been nearly two since I’ve been on a comedy stage. (See I am a Comedian for more about my start with comedy.) Neither of these things are gone for good in my life but for now, they’re not the most important thing. Perhaps you have a hobby (or two) that you’ve stepped away from.

Sometimes when we hear folks talking about letting go they’re talking about loosening our grip on control. Certainly getting more comfortable with the idea that we don’t and can’t control everything is a part of living (See Compelled to Control for more on control.) However, this is more akin to the concept of acceptance – accepting whatever the world has instore for you. (See How to be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

However, the letting go that I’m speaking about here is about releasing parts of ourselves – either for a time as above or forever. Releasing things forever can be harder. For instance, Reiss discussed in Who Am I? that some folks value vengeance. Those folks find it hard to let go of the transgressions of others. They harbor anger that festers. Harboring resentment and anger towards another person is often described as taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Releasing the negative feelings that we feel for others is one thing that with work we can let go of.

The most poignant example of letting go that we must all experience as humans is the loss of relationships with others whether through someone moving away or more tragically dying. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on loss through death.) Letting go (giving up) is the most painful human experience. In some real sense we’re losing a part of ourselves. We’re letting go of the positive memories of the other person. However, not all letting go is so tragic and overwhelming. There are also habits and passions of ours that we can let go of as well.

When I was early in my teenage years, I loved television. I turned it on when I came home and turned it off when I went to bed. I’d watch anything. I’d watch reruns of black and white shows that weren’t good when they were produced. I kept up with shows and I invested a lot of time in it. Consciously or unconsciously I’ve moved to a point of view where I rarely watch television.

The children tell me about the latest reality TV show or their favorite fictional drama – but I don’t know anything about it. For the most part I’ve let go of TV in my life. When I watch TV it’s mostly Doctor Who. (and if you’ve seen their production schedule you know that isn’t very frequently.) It’s a part of my life that I left behind and I have no expectation that I’ll ever pick it back up.

I had to let it go out of my life so that I could do other things. One of those is reading books.

Picking Up

If you’re able to let go of something (for a moment or a lifetime) you create space in your life for something else. You create the opportunity to do something different. One of those things for me is my reading and writing. As most people who read my blog know, I read and post a blog post for a book nearly every week. I am frequently asked where I find the time to do this. There are really two answers to this question.

First, my office is at home in a separate building. My commute is 8 seconds. I take the extra hour that most folks spend fighting traffic to and from work and I pour that into my reading and writing. It doesn’t happen every day and sometimes I have my own commute time as I drive to see clients, but it probably frees at least 4 hours a week in my schedule to read. The second answer is that I’m not watching TV – and I’m for the most part not playing computer games – This frees another 5-10 hours a week where I can pour my time into reading and writing.

All total I’ll get an extra 5-15 hours per week where I can read or write. This process for me is a process of improving myself. It’s a process of growing to be a better person today than I was yesterday. It’s a continual refinement of my mental maps and the continual development of skills. Each book puts another set of tools in my toolbox for being in relationships with others.

I am OK – Mostly

Asking for help is both natural and unnatural from an evolutionary point of view. We evolved as social creatures so that we could help one another succeed. However, those same forces would cause others to attack us in our moments of weakness. So we evolved as social creatures who remain guarded even in our social circles. We rarely stop considering how others may react to our vulnerability. As a result we say that we’re OK when we really mean that we’re mostly OK. Revealing our weaknesses hasn’t served us well – so we try to not do it.

However, for those who are interested in growth being vulnerable is a requirement. You can’t grow if you don’t face reality.

One Errors Through Absence the Other through Excess

In the Enneagram model individuals error through either (See Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self Discovery for more on the Enneagram) under expressing or over expressing their instincts, feelings, or thinking. (They can also be completely out of touch with any of these three.) In The Road Less TraveledPeck explains that neurotics assume too much responsibility and those with character disorders accept too little responsibility.

The neurotic uses the word “should” to indicate that they believe they have a greater control of the world than they actually do – and they feel like they’re falling short of the mark. The character disordered individual uses words like “can’t” to indicate that they don’t have the power to change their condition.

In truth we really only have control of our behaviors, we can’t control other people (See Choice Theory) or our current situation. We have to accept that we have control of behaviors – but not control over the behaviors of others. We do have the ability to lift ourselves out of our situation with hard work. However, we can’t change anything that has already happened.

If we’re in debt we can work on paying down and eliminating that debt. We can’t change, however, what got us into debt in the first place whether that debt was caused by an uninsured or underinsured event – or whether the debt was caused by uncontrolled spending.

Nothing Left to Love

Black holes are seen as the monsters of the universe. They are endlessly chewing up stars, planets, and anything else that gets near them. They’re perceived as having an unquenchable thirst for matter – any kind of matter. There are some people who are “black hole” people who seem to devour love – to consume it. They need love so much that they gobble up every bit of love that others offer to them.

These people have love holes so big that it seems like nothing will ever fill it. They are so busy seeking to get love that they’re left without any energy left to give love. This is a tragedy because it means the very thing that they want the most is the very thing they’re not capable of sharing to others in return.

The best way to get love is to give it. Universally if you’re willing to extend yourselves into people to help them and support their growth you’re more likely to get love in return.

Make me Happy

It is one thing to expect that others will love you and quite another to expect that they’ll make you happy. Our feelings, how we feel, are not the responsibility of others. Our feelings are how we choose to react to the world. (See Choice Theory for more on choosing feelings.) Despite the truth that we are responsible for our feelings many people prefer to find someone else who will make them happy.

There’s a certain beauty in this. If someone else is responsible for making you happy then you don’t have to take responsibility for it. When you’re sad you can blame someone else like your spouse. They aren’t making you happy so you can apply pressure to them to do a better job. This is a great deal until you realize that others are quite literally incapable of making you happy and therefore are always doomed to fail. Sure your spouse can cook you a special dinner and draw a warm bath but this doesn’t make you happy. This helps you to feel loved (though it’s not required that you let it in.) The feeling that you’re loved completely allows you to choose to feel happy.

The Balance of Love

There are many definitions of love. The romantic “fallen” in love comes with a belief that you should do anything for the other person. We believe that parents should do anything for their children. However, love is not simply giving the object of your affection everything they want. Love is also desiring their growth as well. Love is wanting for the other person to become what they’re capable of being. Of them becoming more than what they are today.

Sometimes love means judicious withholding so that the other person can grow. (Note that I’m not suggesting the kind of withholding in Intimacy Anorexia which is not focused on the other person’s growth.) Love means caring about the other person enough to let them struggle – when struggling means they’ll grow. Struggle is a natural part of life which can’t be eliminated. For instance, in The Rise of Superman we learned that the struggle phase precedes the flow phase of heightened productivity.

If the center of love is a desire for the other person to be the best person they can be, to enable and facilitate their growth and success, then it makes more sense that there are times, particularly with children, that they shouldn’t get everything they want.

Most parents instinctively know that you can’t give a child everything they want because to do so would create a spoiled brat. At the same time good parents struggle to determine when they should give things to their children to demonstrate that they love them and when to withhold things to demonstrate that they love them – in a way the child won’t immediately understand.

Loved is a Feeling, Love is Not

As mentioned above one can feel loved. That is to accept the loving gestures of another. Love, however, is not a feeling. It’s an active verb. It’s a decision. It’s action. Love is making a decision to create a place of importance in your “quality world” – that is the internal representation of the external world. (See Choice Theory for more on a quality world.)

In Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness the view that love isn’t a feeling but rather it’s a choice is fully exposed. Here Peck is focused on the action of love. Folks will say that they don’t feel like loving someone else. However, it really means that they don’t feel like giving. They don’t feel like extending themselves further and expending more energy. Realizing love is action you can see that you don’t feel like loving. It’s not that you don’t feel love. You don’t feel like loving others.

Performance-based Love

While love is an act not a feeling, being loved doesn’t require an act or action. However, many people have gotten this mixed up and have taught their children and those around them that in order to be loved they have to perform – to make the person look or feel good. However, this kind of love conveys that the decision to love someone is based solely on what they can do for you.

How can someone feel secure if they’re constantly worried that their performance will cause those whom they are interdependent upon to kick them out and cast them aside? At the heart of performance-based love is this fear, that we won’t be loved. As a result when you teach others a performance based approach to love to condemn them to a life of wondering if they’ll be safe – if they’ll continue to be loved.

Starting the Journey

One of the cautions in The Road Less Traveled is that the harder and longer that you work on spiritual development the lonelier the road becomes. I’d love to change that. I’d love for all of you to join me on The Road Less Travelled.

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