In a recent email dialog with one of my readers, I was reminded of the works of Dr. M. Scott Peck (1936-2005), one of which I’ve been reading over the holidays: The Road Less Traveled. First published in 1978, it has sold over ten million copies. The first section of the book is about discipline. I have long believed achieving spirituality cannot be complete without self-discipline.
One of life’s greatest truths is that life is difficult. It was meant to be that way. If you have been taught or believe otherwise, you have been deceived. It would serve you well to cast off such a defective map and replace it with the truth. Because the sooner you do so, the sooner you accept this truth, then life is no longer difficult. Well, maybe it is, but that no longer matters, does it?
Life is a series of problems. They are presented to us for our growth and benefit. We can either moan about them or we can solve them. Discipline contains a basic set of tools we use to solve life’s problems. Without discipline we can solve nothing. Dr. Peck elaborates on the four tools as 1) Delaying Gratification, 2) Accepting Responsibility, 3) Dedication to Truth and 4) Balancing.
The Only Decent Way to Live
“Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.” (Dr. Peck, p. 19) A sure-fire indication that someone has learned this character trait is in the way they use their time. It also reveals how they feel about themselves.
The feeling of being valuable – “I am a valuable person” – is essential to mental health and is a cornerstone of self-discipline. When one considers oneself valuable, one will take care of oneself in all ways that are necessary. Self-discipline is self-caring. If we feel ourselves valuable, we will feel our time to be valuable. We choose how we spend time. We will want to use our time well.
Time is one of the greatest gifts of life. If we take the time, we can solve most of our problems. But we must choose to invest the time required. We live in an age of instant gratification. This does not help when the only way to solve problems is to invest precious time. Problems do not go away by themselves and we cannot solve our own life’s problems except by solving them.
The Pain of Freedom
That last statement may appear to be self-evident, but it is seemingly beyond the comprehension of much of the human race. This is because we must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it. We can’t solve a problem by saying, “It’s not my problem. I was born that way.” We can’t solve a problem by hoping someone else will come along and solve it for us someday.
The problem of distinguishing what we are and what we are not responsible for in this life is one of the greatest problems of human existence. It is never entirely solved. We seem to spend our lives continually assessing and reassessing where our responsibilities lie in this ever-changing course of events. It is not a painless process. It requires a willingness to suffer self-examination.
In desiring to avoid the pain of responsibility, millions, even billions of people, daily attempt to escape from freedom. Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior or our own condition, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual, organization or entity. That means we give away our power to that entity. We give up freedom.
A Total Dedication to the Truth
Truth is reality. That which is false is unreal. The more clearly we can see the world, the better equipped we will be to deal with the world. The less clearly we see the reality of the world – the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions and illusions – the less we will be able to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. We need an accurate map.
While this may be obvious, most people choose to ignore it. The route to reality is not easy. We are not born with maps. We have to make them. It takes effort to make an accurate map. Maps need to be continually revised. The world as well as our vantage point is constantly changing. Major revisions are painful, excruciatingly so. Change can be frightening, even overwhelming.
Yet we must revise our maps when new truths are learned, otherwise we will not grow and fulfill our purpose in life. We must be open to change, even to challenges to our maps. We must live a life of total dedication to continuous, never-ending, stringent self-examination. Study, pondering, meditation and prayer are a few tools of this total dedication. They bring light, peace and safety.
Life Balancing, a True Art Form
Self-discipline is a demanding and complex task. It requires both flexibility and judgment. We must push ourselves to be completely and courageously honest with ourselves yet know when it is appropriate to withhold opinions from others. We must take total responsibility for ourselves, but in doing so we must possess the capacity to reject responsibility that is not meant to be ours.
To be organized and efficient, to live wisely, we must daily delay gratification and keep an eye on the future. Yet to live joyously we must also possess the capacity, when it is not destructive, to live in the present and act spontaneously. In other words, discipline itself must be disciplined. Balancing is the discipline that gives us flexibility. It is a key skill that requires constant practice.
Life is not an all or nothing proposition and our response system should reflect this. An adequate response to each situation requires judgment to balance raw emotion. Anger, passion, temptation and challenges can all be met with an appropriate, balanced response. Not all situations appear in our lives the same each time. What is appropriate for one circumstance fits not at all in another.
The Healthiness of Depression
What I’ve presented in the preceding fourteen paragraphs is a summary of the first section of the book, The Road Less Traveled, on discipline. If you’re like me, there was probably something in at least one of those paragraphs that triggered a thought similar to this: “That’s a wonderful ideal, but it’s not the reality of my world. I’m nowhere near perfection in that particular characteristic.”
The feeling associated with giving up something loved – or at least something that is a part of us and familiar – is depression. Mentally healthy human beings must grow. Sacrificing or giving up a long-cherished but deficient piece of the old self is an integral part of the process of growth. Therefore depression is a normal and basically healthy phenomenon, if completed properly.
Depression sets in when one realizes in order to grow, to evolve or become better, one must leave behind old, incorrect patterns of thinking. We can no longer cling to unhealthy beliefs. There is a sense of loss and grief when we realize things can never be the way they used to be. This can be a depressing thought. The solution is to put our “self” aside, or, to lose ourselves.
Renunciation and Rebirth
It is in the giving up of self that human beings can find the most ecstatic, lasting, solid, durable joy of life. In Western culture, self is held sacred. Death is considered an unspeakable insult. Yet it is death which provides life with all its meaning. This secret is the central wisdom of religion, and more particularly, of faith. We must give up our old self in order to make room for the new.
It is an unusual person who has learned to silence the demand for the familiar and to welcome the new and the strange. Give it up. There is no other way to grow. We sacrifice, or give things up for something better. Self-discipline is a self-enlarging process. The pain of giving up is the pain of death, but death of the old is birth of the new. The pain of death is the pain of new birth.
In order to develop new and better ideas and theories of understanding, old concepts and ideas that may have served well for a while, must die. This lifetime is a simultaneous series of deaths and rebirths. Throughout life, we must learn to die. The farther one travels on the journey of life, the more births one will experience, and therefore the more deaths, the more pain, the more joy.
Thoughts on Personal Application
I’ve shared these notes from Dr. Peck’s bestseller because they have become the standard for so many who study the art of personal growth. I am in a transition phase of my life right now as are so many of my friends. The transition for me has been a death and a rebirth. I chose to sacrifice something I loved in order to move on in my life. Some of my friends had it ripped from them.
I am grateful for the rebirth. It is very real to me. The acceptance of responsibility for my life has become more tangible and pronounced. I deal directly with the Lord on matters of salvation. He and I are working things out in a way that seemed to elude me before. Things seem to be clearer. There’s no thought of a middleman anymore. There’s no need to explain myself to anyone else.
Conformity to an unrealistic orthodoxy is no longer a concern. Pleasing my Savior is my only guide. He lets me know when I am off-course more than ever before. The path is indeed strait, yet at the same time I feel a greater sense of freedom and prompting from the Lord on what is best for me. I am on a road less traveled, a journey back to God, walking as a disciple of Christ.