Life is tough, and legions want to hear about it

April 01, 1995|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

Since it appeared in 1978, "The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth" has become a superhighway for millions daring to confront inner conflict.

As of tomorrow, M. Scott Peck's classic, published by Simon & Schuster, will have clung to the New York Times paperback best-seller list for a mind-boggling 595 weeks -- nearly 12 years.

Some 6 million copies of "The Road" are in print. It is a fixture in classrooms, church discussion groups, therapy sessions and in seminars geared to the business community as well as to those seeking a way to recast their lives.

Tomorrow, Dr. Peck will speak about "Growing up Painfully: Consciousness and the Problem of Pain," at 7 p.m. at the College of Notre Dame. A four-hour workshop to be conducted by Dr. Peck is sold out.

"The Road" is beloved because it speaks the truth, says Tracey Manning, a professor of psychology at Notre Dame. "The whole idea that 'life is difficult,' accepting that somehow makes us less frustrated," says Dr. Manning, referring to "The Road's" famous first line.

"It's a perennial awakening we need; that we think [life] ought to be easy is an illusion," she says.

"The Road" also assures us that we are not alone in our pain. As Dr. Manning puts it: "We're not being zapped by a cosmic thunderbolt. This is the stuff of life. How we approach these difficulties, really determines how we develop into mature adults."

After writing "The Road," Dr. Peck, a nervous, reclusive man known to wrestle publicly with his own imperfections, retreated to a convent to contemplate impending fame. He understood that he had penned an important book, one that offered no easy answers, but did present spiritual growth as a tangible and attainable goal.

Later, he would call the book a "gift from God," and admirers have since attributed its uncanny ability to grasp the human condition to a kind of divine inspiration.

"The Road" is a guide book for life," says Sue Fleming-Holland, a Simon & Schuster publicist. She has seen copies of the book, "tattered, ripped and yellowed" from use, toted by devotees "everywhere they go."

No other book, including Dr. Peck's subsequent works, has proved as compelling as "The Road," Dr. Manning says.

"Lots of self-help books have come along that haven't had the impact of Peck's book. . . . I think it's not a quick-fix book and so many of the other ones act as if [they have] the answer: 'Here's what we did. You ought to be able to do this too.' "

And though Dr. Peck poses tough questions in "The Road," he "seems to walk along with you, helping you realize that it's going to be a life journey," Dr. Manning says.

With striking examples drawn from his own psychiatric practice and quotations from T. S. Eliot, Carl Jung and other visionaries, Dr. Peck found a way to embrace human paradox. "Not only do self love and love of others go hand in hand . . . ultimately they are undistinguishable," he writes in "The Road."

Therein lies the key to the book's phenomenal power, says Barry Casey, an associate professor of communication, journalism and philosophy at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park.

Dr. Peck "pointed a way where we could follow the quest, the journey, find ourselves in God, and yet be part of a community. That's a difficult thing to articulate," Dr. Casey says.

"The Road" took a "common-sense, down-to-earth approach and talked about profound things in a simple, but not simplistic way and I think it really hit a chord in people," Dr. Casey says. "It sort of affirmed things people felt and believed, but never said out loud, because they would be thought square or old-fashioned."

Dr. Valerie Sedlak, an assistant professor of English at Morgan State University and a Graham Greene scholar, discovered remarkably similar themes in the writings of Greene and Dr. Peck, a fact that she wove into her doctoral dissertation. Like Greene, Dr. Peck's genius lies in his skills as a story teller who is able to translate his collected wisdom in a way that leaves an enduring and provocative imprint on readers, Dr. Sedlak says.

"The Road" is required reading in Sister Sharon Kanis' Marriage and Family course at Notre Dame. The assistant professor of religious studies attributes the book's evergreen popularity to "the fact that Dr. Peck really defines love, in that its primary purpose is the spiritual growth of two people," she says.

August G. Lageman, executive director of Pastoral Counseling of Maryland and an associate faculty member of Notre Dame's philosophy department, advises caution when contemplating the "The Road."

"Philosophy as a discipline has to do with thinking critically about basic issues in life," he says. "To [ascribe such knowledge] over to one person or one book is something that doesn't really appeal to me. When I use this book in college courses, I say to students, 'I want to know what you think are the strengths in the book and what you think are the limitations.' "

And while Dr. Lageman contends there is "nothing startling new" in "The Road," he praises the "human picture" portrayed by Dr. Peck, who willingly exposed his own personal and professional foibles.

It is "The Road's" human picture that enables one to learn from Dr. Peck, Dr. Barry says. He marvels at the author's "sense of wonder and awe and mystery [inherent in] spirituality. And yet he very much has got his feet on the ground. That combination is hard to do. When you find it, it takes you down the road."

AUTHOR SPEAKS

What: M. Scott Peck lectures on "Growing up Painfully: Consciousness and the Problem of Pain"

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow

Where: LeClerc Hall at College of Notre Dame

Tickets: $25, available at the door

Call: (410) 435-0100

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