Is All Mental Suffering Due to Avoiding Problems: The Road Less Traveled
What is the best book ever written about psychological growth? Which book would I recommend to everyone who Googles “therapist near me,” regardless of their mental health desires/needs? No one has done better than Scott Peck in The Road Less Travelled.
Peck starts his book with some simple yet profound truths, which people (all of us) try to avoid at almost any cost.
Life is difficult.
There is no way to solve problems except by solving them.
Peck believes that ALL mental suffering is the result of avoiding our problems. It really may be that simple.
So how do we solve problems, according to Scott Peck? We need four essential tools (skills), some of which are seemingly becoming much more absent in our society. The four tools are:
- Delayed gratification
- Acceptance of responsibility
- Dedication to reality, and
Tool 1: Delayed Gratification
Delayed gratification (DG) is a less familiar concept than impulse control, but they are essentially similar. DG can be summarized as doing work before play. It is the ability to not do (or delay) something you want to do—for a greater good. Not eating too much to lose weight, not driving too fast, and not having sex too soon are simple every day examples.
Have you ever heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Test? In this late 1960s and early 1970s experiment, young children were given a choice of eating ONE marshmallow immediately or of waiting a short period of time (delaying gratification) and getting to eat TWO marshmallows. The experimenters noted which children waited and got to eat two marshmallows and which ones ate immediately. These children were tracked all the way through college. Guess what?
The ones who were able to delay gratification (who got two marshmallows) did better in school, had better SAT scores and had more healthy Body Mass Indices. Several subsequent studies confirmed this research while another found the correlation to be along socioeconomic lines rather than on ability to delay gratification. In my over 20,000 hours of teaching low income children over a period of seventeen years, however, I found a strong correlation between the ability to delay gratification and success in elementary school. Even exclusively in the lower socioeconomic strata where I worked, success in school was correlated with the ability to delay gratification.
Tool 2: Acceptance of Responsibility
I had an adolescent client who once asked a great question: what is so bad about NOT taking responsibility? I did not have an immediate answer—but I thought Scott Peck had an answer. This student had gotten in some trouble in school and his parents, teachers, and counselors were trying to impress upon her the importance of taking responsibility. She had a very difficult time with this concept. She often said it was “not her fault.”
Scott Peck starts with the obvious: we cannot solve problems by saying “it is not my problem.” This statement does not tell us exactly why it is unhelpful to avoid responsibility, but it is clearly a true statement. One of my favorite quotes from Freud is “never underestimate the power of denial.” It is the same with responsibility: we will often go to the ends of the earth to avoid a problem, to avoid responsibility. Yet, it is what we need to do if we are to have room to grow.
Talking about being responsible for what we have done in the past is different from taking responsibility for solving our existing and future problems. The adolescent mentioned above was hearing administrators and teachers say that she needed to take responsibility for her past behavior. While this is true, my client could not see past being blamed. I suggested that maybe she focus on the future, that she was the only one who could solve her problems. In attempting to avoid the pain of responsibility, “millions even billions daily attempt to escape from freedom.” Taking responsibility is the road less travelled.
Tool 3: Dedication to Reality
Many people who have been educated in America after the release of the Road Less Travelled (1978) have been taught that some or all of reality is socially constructed. Many postmodern philosophers go so far as to say we cannot know anything beyond ourselves, that only our perception is real. Of course, this belief is nonsense. If you do not believe me, then agree to an experiment. If your hypothesis is that all of reality is “constructed,” then you should have no problem with my experiment. What is the experiment? I hit you on the head with a 2 by 4 board and then you tell me whether the board is only your perception or an external reality.
So, there is reality out there and we bump into it almost every day. For example, why do we choose not to pull out in front of cars or trains? It is simple: we know that a 4,000 pound car or a 50 ton train would hurt, maim, or kill us. According to Peck, we need to be dedicated to reality to be mentally healthy. What does it mean to be dedicated to reality?
Is Reality Out There?
We do have a view of reality, or a perception of reality, but reality does exist, per se. We see the world and people, but not totally accurately. Peck uses the analogy of a map as our view of reality. As we grow up, we construct maps of reality, of the world. The more effort we put into making our map of reality, the more accurate it will be.
The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the more able we are to deal with the world. Unfortunately, many people, most people, stop revising their maps early in life because it is work (problem solving). Revising our maps, especially making major revisions, is painful. Only a relative and fortunate few explore reality–updating their maps–until the moment of their death. This path is the road less traveled.
Dedication to reality means that we must always be open to having our views of reality challenged. Of course, not many people choose this road. According to Peck, the reason people avoid psychotherapy is not lack of money, but a lack of courage.
Tool 4: Balancing
According to Peck, we must accept total responsibility for ourselves in order to be free. At the same time, we must reject responsibility that is not truly ours. Balancing is when we manage these ends of a spectrum. On the one side, we are responsible for solving all our problems, but we are not responsible for solving the problems of other people. The essence of balancing is essentially one of “giving up” unhealthy things. We must give up the outdated parts of our maps to grow and be truly free.
To be healthy and whole and vibrant, we need to delay gratification, take responsibility for solving our problems, and be dedicated to revising our maps of reality continuously. Most people, probably ninety percent, do not follow this path less taken because it is work and, on the surface, is boring. It also takes courage to have our maps of reality continuously open to challenge and revision. The journey of psychotherapy is the road less travelled but, in the words of Robert Frost, that has made all the difference! Therapy is the best thing you can do for your life.
If you a ready to feel better and grow, then call or email to set up a free, 15 minute consultation. I am standing by—at 704-457-1789 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Why search “therapist near me?”