Tag Archives: M. Scott Peck

Emotional Growth = Spiritual Growth

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.


Some time ago, during one of those periods when I have been obsessed with the goal of learning more about love, I came across M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled, in which he gave a definition I found plenty enlightening. He argued that love is not a feeling but is rather a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of another’s spiritual growth. More simply: love is willingness to sacrifice for the sake of another.

From Peck’s angle, love is an act of will that may or may not connect to a particular emotion.

C.S. Lewis wrote about “the four loves”: eros or romantic love; storge or affection such as family members may exhibit for each other; philia or a strong friendship bond; and agape or unconditional love, as God exemplifies and would have us apply toward others.

As Lewis points out, all the loves except agape can readily be abused, poisoned by the desire for self-aggrandizement. What appears to be one of those loves may actually be no more than pure self-love in disguise. We pick our friends for how they can serve us, our lovers for the lust they may satisfy. Love for our parents or kids might depend upon what their accomplishments and status do for our image.

William Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble” exposes the authentic and the counterfeit (for those who read this poem in my earlier post, it’s well worth rereading):

“Love seeketh not itself to please,

Nor for itself hath any care,

But for another gives its ease,

And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay,

Trodden with the cattle’s feet,

But a Pebble of the brook

Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,

To bind another to its delight,

Joys in another’s loss of ease,

And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

Though I deeply respect and admire the insights of Mr. Peck and Mr. Lewis, I can’t accept as a complete answer either “love” as willingness to sacrifice regardless of feeling or “love” as a catch phrase for a number of different emotions.

What Soren Kierkegaard refers to as “the subjective” tells me that love is a unity though it may express itself in different variations, and that the willingness to sacrifice based upon motive not partnered with emotion can’t be counted as love.

In First Corintians, St. Paul asserts that: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Simply, whatever I do without love is meaningless. I could sacrifice in order to bring about the salvation of the whole world, but the action wouldn’t be worth doing.

I won’t speculate whether St. Paul meant that actions taken without love will backfire or that, even though they might help others, they won’t draw us any closer to God or heaven. His meaning may be far beyond my comprehension.

But I will speculate about the application of love, whatever it is, wherever it comes from, to our work as artists.

Suppose we get blessed with the opportunity to see an exhibit of Van Gogh originals, or to hear fine musicians play “Ode to Joy”. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will notice that the creator of the painting or symphony has applied something more than great skill, that the artist’s love has entered into the creation and remains there as long as the work exists.

When I read Dostoyevski or Dickens I often glimpse through the words the love that inspired the author to write those particular words. And we encounter love not only in the greatest masters. I recently finished the Harry Potter books and found in them an abundance of love.

So, my advice is, if we intend to create anything beautiful, by which I also mean anything true, we had best apply ourselves to the acquisition and practice of love.

Otherwise, if I attend the best writing programs and learn all the poetic skills, I will offer only noise. If I devote myself to craft and produce dozens of novels that entertain millions of readers, I have given nothing of value in exchange for the fortune I may have acquired.

I had a remarkable friend, Sylvia Curtis, the mother of Eric Curtis, whom you could meet in Reading Brother Lawrence. One day I as I entered Sylvia’s apartment she met me with a scowl and demanded, “What’s the purpose of life?”

I said, “Uh . . .”

She said, “To know love and to serve God.”

Later she admitted that definition came from a Catholic priest in an orphanage where she had done time.

Please note that “to know love” comes first.