Menanteau Serfontein – 24 June 2021. Updated 11 January 2022.
The famous opening line of the best seller book entitled “The Road Less Travelled” that was authored by the American Psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, is “Life is difficult”. Peck explains that the journey of spiritual growth is long, hard and often painful process of change toward a higher level of self-understanding and understanding others.
In a previous 4-Part Series, we described the following four interrelated Tools/Techniques of “Discipline” that Peck proposes to deal with suffering and the means of experiencing the pain of problems constructively:
- Delaying Gratification – Tool/Technique 1 for Dealing Constructively with Suffering and the Pain of Problems – M. Scott Peck
- Acceptance of Responsibility – Tool/Technique 2 for Dealing Constructively with Suffering and the Pain of Problems – M. Scott Peck
- Dedication to Truth – Tool/Technique 3 – M. Scott Peck
- Flexibility and Wisdom (Balancing) – Tool/Technique 4
This is Part 1 of a Three-Part series that covers Peck’s extensive practical understanding, experience, principles and advice about What is Love, What it is Not and What its Role is. It is well worth reading Parts 2 and 3 as well.
Part 3 is entitled “Love – Part 3 (A Personal Perspective)”
Peck states that he makes no distinction between the mind and the spirit, and therefore no distinction between the process of achieving spiritual growth and achieving mental growth. For the avoidance of confusion, my simplified interpretation of Peck’s reference to “spiritual growth” is that it means personal growth of our “inner being”.
Please note that almost all of the content of this Article has been transcribed verbatim from Peck’s Book.
Peck states that love provides the motive, will, driving force and energy for exercising prudent discipline. He defines love as “The will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s inner spiritual growth.” Love includes self-love as well as love for another. We are incapable of loving another unless we love ourselves, just as we are incapable of teaching our children self-discipline unless we ourselves are self-disciplined. We cannot be a source of strength unless we nurture our own strength.
Peck stresses that the act of extending one’s limits implies effort. Love is not effortless. To the contrary, love is effortful. The desire to love, is not love in itself. Love is as love does. Love is an act of will, i.e. it is both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.
Peck says that psychiatric patients are invariably confused about the nature of love.
What Love is Not
- “Falling in Love”
“Falling in Love” is not love. According to Peck, “falling in love” is invariably temporary and the feeling of ecstatic lovingness that characterizes the experience of “falling in love” is something that always passes.
The process of “ego boundaries” (ego boundaries is the concept that individuals are able to distinguish between self and not-self. Someone who is said to lack clear ego boundaries blurs the distinction between himself or herself and others by identifying with them too easily and too much) is a process that starts when we are infants and continues through childhood into adolescence and even into adulthood. As infants, the boundaries are our physical limits and into adolescence they become more psychological.
The experience of falling in love allows us to temporarily escape our loneliness. The essence of falling in love is a sudden collapse of a section of an individual’s ego boundaries, permitting one to merge one’s identity with that of another person. We and our beloved are one! Loneliness is no more!
Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will re-asserts itself and the ego boundaries snap back into place and people “fall out of love”. This either means dissolving the relationship or initiating the work of real loving. Real love occurs in a context in which the feeling of love is lacking, i.e. we act lovingly despite the fact that we might not feel loving. Real love is a permanent, self-enlarging experience. Falling in love is not. However, Peck does point out that “falling in love” could in fact be very close to real love and could potentially lead to a lifetime of real love. Although “falling in love” is not love in itself, it is part of the great and mysterious scheme of love.
Peck states that a key thesis of his Book is that true spiritual growth (personal growth of the inner being) can be achieved only through the persistent exercise of real love.
- Romantic Love is a Myth
The true acceptance of one’s own and each other’s individuality and separateness is the only foundation upon which a mature marriage can be based and real love can grow. Peck says that most couples in therapy have to be told that they are “too much married”, i.e. too closely coupled and that they need to establish some psychological distance from each other before they can begin to work constructively on their problems.
- Dependency is not love
When you require another individual for your survival, you are a parasite on that individual. There is no choice and no freedom involved in such a relationship. It is a matter of necessity rather than love. Love is the free exercise of choice. Two people love each other only when they are quite capable of living without each other but choose to live with each other.
Dependency is the inability to experience wholeness or to function adequately without the certainty that one is being actively cared for by another. Dependency in physically healthy adults is pathological and a manifestation of a mental illness or defect. One whose life is ruled and dictated by dependency needs, suffers from a psychiatric disorder named “passive-dependent personality disorder”. People suffering from this disorder concern themselves with what others can do for them to the exclusion of what they themselves can do.
Peck says that a good marriage can exist only between two strong and independent people. Passive dependency has its genesis in a lack of love. Passive dependent people also lack self-discipline. They are unwilling or unable to delay gratification of their hunger for attention. They lack a sense of responsibility for themselves. They passively look to others, frequently their own children, as the source of their happiness and fulfilment and therefore when they are not happy or fulfilled, they basically feel that others are responsible. Consequently, they are endlessly angry, because they endlessly feel let down by others.
If you expect another person to make you happy, you’ll be endlessly disappointed. The most common disturbance that passive dependent people manifest beyond their relationship with others, is dependency on drugs and alcohol. Theirs is the “addictive personality”.
Dependency may appear to be love, because it is a force that causes people to fiercely attach themselves to one another. But in reality, it is not love; it is a form of anti-love. It seeks to receive rather than to give. It nourishes “infantilism” (infantilism is the persistence of childish characteristics or behaviour in adult life) rather than growth. It works to trap and constrict rather than to liberate. Ultimately, it destroys rather than builds relationships, and it destroys rather than builds people.
- Cathexis without Love (cathexis is the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object, especially to an unhealthy degree)
One of the aspects of dependency is that it is unconcerned with spiritual growth. Dependent people are interested in their own nourishment, but no more; they desire filling, they desire to be happy; they don’t desire to grow, nor are they willing to tolerate the unhappiness, the loneliness and suffering involved in growth. Neither do dependent people care about the spiritual growth of the other, the object of their dependency; they care only that the other is there to satisfy them.
Peck says that the person who loves money and power more than anything else, is often not perceived to be a loving person. He’s often a small person, mean and petty. Wealth and power have become for such people ends in themselves rather than means to a spiritual goal. The only true end of love is spiritual growth.
Hobbies are self-nurturing activities. In loving ourselves – that is, nurturing ourselves for the purpose of spiritual growth – we need to provide ourselves with all kinds of things that are not directly spiritual. To nourish the spirit, the body must also be nourished. We need food and shelter. No matter how dedicated we are to spiritual development, we also need rest and relaxation, exercise and distraction. Saints must sleep and even prophets must play. Thus hobbies may be a means through which we love ourselves. We should however realize that if a hobby or sports activity becomes an end in itself, then it becomes a substitute for our spiritual and personal growth.
On the other hand, power and money may be means to a loving goal. A person may, for instance, suffer a career in politics for the primary purpose of utilizing political power for the betterment of society. Or some people may grow their wealth, not for money’s sake, in order to send their children to university or to provide themselves with the freedom and time for study and reflection which are necessary for their own spiritual growth.
There are a large number of women who are capable of “loving” their children only as infants. Such women can be found everywhere. They may be ideal mothers until their children reach the age of two – infinitely tender, joyously breast-feeding, cuddling and playing with their children consistently – until the child begins to assert its own will – to disobey, to whine, to refuse to play, to occasionally reject being cuddled, to attach itself to other people, to move out into the world a little bit on its own – then the mother’s love ceases. She loses interest in the child and perceives it as a nuisance. At the same time she will often feel an almost overpowering need to be pregnant again, to have another infant, another “pet” – and the same cycle is repeated. She then focuses solely on the infant and would even go as far as avidly seeking to baby-sit for the infant children of neighbours, whilst almost totally ignoring the pleas of her older child(dren) for attention. The effect of this experience is usually evidenced as the children grow to adulthood in a depressive and/or passive dependent personality pattern.
This type of love can be likened to the instinctual behaviour of “falling in love”: it is not a genuine form of love in that it is relatively effortless, and it is not totally an act of will or choice; it is not directed toward improvement or spiritual growth; it is close to love in that it is reaching out to others and serves to initiate interpersonal bonds from which real love might begin; but a good deal more is required to develop a healthy, creative marriage and raise a healthy or spiritually growing child.
The point is that nurturing can be and usually should be much more than simple feeding, and that nurturing spiritual growth is an infinitely more complicated process. Peck refers to a mother who would not let her son take the bus to school, but rather drive him to and from school which is a form of nurturing the son did not need (or want) and it ended up retarding rather than furthering the son’s personal growth. Other examples abound: fathers who buy their sons whole roomsful of toys and their daughters whole closetsful of clothes; parents who set no limits and deny no desires.
Love is not simply “giving”; it is “judicious” giving and “judicious” withholding as well. It is judicious praising and judicious criticizing. It is judicious arguing, struggling, confronting, urging, pushing and pulling in addition to comforting. It is leadership. The word “judicious” means requiring judgement and judgement requires much more than instinct; it requires thoughtful and often painful decision-making.
The motives behind injudicious giving and destructive nurturing are many, but such cases invariably have a basic feature in common: the “giver”, under the guise of love, is responding to and meeting his or her own needs without regard to the personal growth needs of the receiver.
Peck mentions an instance where a man reluctantly came to see him, because his wife was suffering from chronic depression and both his sons were receiving psychiatric attention. Despite the fact that his whole family was “ill”, he was initially completely unable to comprehend that he might be playing a role in their illness. The man said that he was concerned about them and doing everything in his power to take care of them and their problems. Analysis of the situation revealed that this man was indeed working himself to the bone to meet the demands of his wife and children. He had given both his sons new cars and paid the insurance on the cars even though he felt the boys should be putting more effort into being self-supporting. Each week he took his wife to the opera or the theatre in the city even though he intensely disliked going to the city and opera bored him to death. Busy though he was on his job, he spent most of his free time at home picking up after his wife and sons, who had a total disregard for house-cleaning. He said that he was tired of doing all this for them all the time, but said “what else am I to do?”. I love them and my concern for them is so great that I will never stand by as long as they have needs to be filled. As it turned out, this man had a heartless father who was an alcoholic and philanderer with no concern for his family and grossly neglected them. Peck’s patient vowed never to be like his father and instead to be seen as loving and compassionate.
What the patient did not understand was the degree to which he was infantilizing his family. He continually referred to his wife as his “kitten” and his full-grown strapping sons as my “little ones”. What he had to be taught was that loving was a complicated rather than a simple activity, requiring the participation of his entire being – his head as well as his heart. Because of his need to be as unlike his father as possible, he had not been able to develop a flexible response system for expressing his love. He had to learn that not giving at the right time was more compassionate than giving at the wrong time and that fostering independence was more loving than taking care of people who could otherwise take care of themselves. He even had to learn that expressing his own needs, anger, resentments and expectations was every bit as necessary to the mental health of his family as his self-sacrifice, and therefore that love must be manifested in confrontation as much as in beatific (“blissful”) acceptance.
Gradually coming to realize how he infantilized his family, he began to make changes. He stopped picking up after everyone and became openly angry when his sons did not adequately participate in the care of the home. He refused to continue paying for the insurance of his sons’ cars, telling them that if they wanted to drive, they would have to pay for it themselves. He suggested that his wife goes alone to the opera in New York. In making these changes, he had to risk appearing to be the “bad guy” and had to give up the self-imposed omnipotence of his former role as provider for all the needs of the family. His sons, as well as his wife, initially reacted to these changes with anger. But soon the one son went back to college and the other found a more demanding job and got an apartment for himself. His wife began to enjoy her new independence and to grow in ways of her own. The man himself became more effective in his job and his life became more enjoyable.
Whenever we think of ourselves of doing something for someone else, we are in some way denying our own responsibility. Whatever we do is done because we choose to do it and we make that choice because it is the one that satisfies us the most. When we genuinely love, we do so because we want to love. We do something because it is an extension of ourselves, rather than a sacrifice of the self. Love enlarges rather than diminishes the self; it fills the self rather than depleting it.
- Love is not a Feeling
Pecks states that love is an action, an activity. It is not a feeling. A genuinely loving individual will often take loving and constructive action toward a person that he/she consciously dislikes.
Genuine love implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom. When we are concerned for someone else’s spiritual growth, we know that a lack of commitment is likely to be harmful and that the commitment to that person is probably necessary for us to manifest our concern effectively.
In a constructive marriage, the partners must regularly, routinely and predictably attend to each other and their relationship, no matter how they feel. Genuine love transcends the matter of cathexes (cathexis is the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object, especially to an unhealthy degree). When genuine love exists, it does so with or without cathexis and with or without a loving feeling. Earlier on, Peck defined love as the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. Genuine love is volitional (an act of will) rather than emotional. The person who truly loves, does so because of a decision to love. This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present. If it is, so much better; but if it isn’t, the commitment to love, the will to love, still stands and is still exercised.
I must choose on whom to focus my capacity to love and toward whom to direct my will to love. True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed. It is a committed, thoughtful decision. The common tendency to confuse love with the feeling of love allows people all manner of self-deception.
People who grossly neglect their children, more often than not, will consider themselves the most loving of parents. Because true love is an act of will that often transcends ephemeral (lasting for a very short time) feelings of love or cathexis, it is correct to say “Love is as love does.” Love and non-love, as good and evil, are objective and not purely subjective phenomena.
Please note that almost all of the content of this Article has been transcribed verbatim from M. Scott Peck’s Book.
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