I was a mess. Some months after the end of a seventeen- year marriage, my kids were in San Diego and my job was in Chico, northern CA. I had arranged to take my mother on a cruise on the Mississippi where my great-grandfather used to pilot a sternwheeler, but then she got too ill to make the trip. At eighty-two, she wasn’t about to recover. So I was in San Diego, taking care of her and deciding to give up my job as a tenured prof, which also meant leaving behind a new romance.
At nights, if I managed to fall asleep, I would awake in about two hours with no chance of sleeping again. Pills didn’t work. All day long, my stomach felt as if I had been gobbling large portions of lead, though I had lost about thirty pounds.
A letter came from Charlie Morgan, a grad school friend. Charlie had gone to NYC, written ad copy, saved money and was now studying psychology in Boston. The letter expressed his excitement about a book he’d discovered, The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck. I scanned the letter and returned to the darkness.
Several weeks later, I went to a bookstore for no other purpose than to find something on the topic of relaxation as a sleep aid. While browsing, I happened upon a title that seemed to link psychological health with spiritual growth. I bought it and began reading some pages every day. A few days in, one of the book’s themes cured me.
The theme was: anyone seeking emotional or spiritual health must face the absolute truth, no matter how bitter, brutal, dangerous or threatening to the ego.
That prescription worked like magic. It gave me hope, the antidote to despair. The weight in my stomach floated away. Beginning that very night, I slept. Every day, I spent some minutes reviewing my past and present with a keener, bolder, more objective eye.
One day, having remembered I hadn’t responded to Charlie’s letter, I reread it and found that the book he recommended was the very same book that had turned me around.
Some months later, the author lectured at a church not two miles from my home. My cousin was a member the church and had confessed she’d prayed that God would lure me there. Though in those days I avoided churches, I attended the lecture. Once again, Dr. Peck cured me, this time of a severe church-phobia.
His topic was the stages of emotional/spiritual development. As I recall, he laid out our spiritual growth as follows:
1. We begin as infants with pure narcissism. All we care about is fulfilling our needs.
2. Then experience teaches us that to get what we want, we need to fulfill certain expectations, act in certain ways, so we enter a stage of more or less enlightened narcissism.
3. The third stage involves an awareness of our utter selfishness (our sin nature, in Christian lingo). We recognize (either vaguely or acutely) that even what we think of as love is mostly based upon selfish motives. We begin to suspect that selfish people (like us) are a danger to themselves and others. Now conscience or something may lead us to seek out a creed or an authority, a dogma that will hold our base natures in check.
4. Some of us reach stage four when we begin to develop a portion of faith in our ability to rise above our selfish natures. We may become willing to strike out on our own without external restraint.
5. And some blessed folks enter the fifth stage. Though they have conquered the fear of their selfishness, they still feel a call to reach for a greater awareness and gratitude, to live in beauty, in a light the mundane world can’t provide.
As you may have conjectured, church congregations are largely composed of folks in stage 3 and stage 5.
Dr. Peck maintained that his motive as a psychologist was to help his patients move from whatever stage they find themselves in to the next stage. He didn’t believe he could save people or change them from beasts to angels. But he could help them take the next step upward.
I suspect that a precious few adults live squarely and consistently at one or another of those levels. Still, I’ll suggest that as writers we ought to join Dr. Peck in the effort to help our readers grow a little; if not a whole step, at least a shuffle in the right direction.