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Continuing on the road less travelled

Wednesday, 13 March 2024  | Nils von Kalm


I recently re-read M. Scott Peck’s classic book, The Road Less Travelled, after many years. I think it’s as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1978.

The thought of re-reading it came one night on my summer holidays as I lay in bed pondering a new year. Like for many of us, last year wasn’t the easiest for me. It wasn’t the worst year of my life, but it was still difficult. My usual anxiety and depression reared their heads at inopportune times. I also had a career change which, while stressful, has turned out to be a wonderful blessing. As so often happens in life, there were some major things that happened to me during the year that weren’t on my radar. People in 12 Step groups often say that, if you want to give God a laugh, let God know your plans.

Pondering the ups and downs of 2023 also made me think of the concept that people recovering in 12 Step programs swear by, which is the concept of acceptance. To truly recover, we need to learn to accept life on life’s terms, not as the way we often demand it to be. That can be a hard thing to do for someone who resists giving up control, or at least the perception of it.

Peck’s classic book opens with the confrontingly simple line, ‘Life is difficult’. Life in so many ways is about accepting that simple fact. Life is just difficult sometimes and we have to learn to live with that.

With all the work I’ve done on myself over the years – the therapists I’ve seen, the men’s work I’ve done and led, the group work I’ve done – I still lament at times my own lack of acceptance of the fact that life is difficult. I still demand it go my way, and when it doesn’t, I get irritated about it. There is a sense of entitlement in me that stubbornly resists letting go.

I remember the late, great Australian football coach, Ron Barassi, saying once to his players that we have it too easy today with our conveniences and ease of living. Barassi said that in the 1970s. I believe it’s even truer today. We live in an analgesic society. We have pills for everything, and social media to get lost in as we doomscroll our lives away.

As the wonderfully eloquent John Mellencamp sings, we’re a ‘world full of people just living to be heard’. Some people will love us and respect us and others won’t. That’s just the way life is. In the end, we are not really in control, and the sooner we accept that fact, the more relaxed we will be. But we are loved, so we don’t have to be in control.

Those classic opening three words, that life is difficult, set the premise for the rest of Peck’s book.

As I made my way through the book, I found it important to regularly remind myself that the ideas Peck puts forward are of a very different time. The book has a sharp focus on self-discipline while maintaining a healthy balance with the causes of people’s ill-discipline without being shaming. I wonder what Peck would have made of the self-esteem movement of the past 20 or so years, with its resultant epidemic of anxiety and depression that the social researcher, Johann Hari, says are off the charts in Australia?

This is not to say that today’s methods of treating people’s struggles are not as helpful as were those when Peck’s book was written, but it’s certainly refreshing to revisit the idea of character development through self-discipline. It’s not something you hear a lot about today, even in Christian circles. My experience is that much therapy today tends to focus a lot on the trauma people have experienced and how it has shaped the way they live. Peck does this, too, but seems to devote less time to it and instead more on how we can live in the here and now.

I think a balance is needed. When I was going through my divorce 10 years ago, a therapist I was seeing would constantly affirm me and tell me that I didn’t receive the love I needed in my childhood. This therapist didn’t say a lot to me, and after some sessions, he could sense my growing frustration with him. After all, I just wanted him to fix me! After a while longer, though, I slowly realised, for the first time in my life, that I was feeling truly heard. This, plus his constant affirmation of me just as I was experiencing and expressing my pain to him eventually helped to lift a lot of the shame I felt. This shame, that for decades had been like a hook in the bottom of my heart that simply did not budge, slowly, little by little, began to dislodge.

Often though we can hear all the affirmation in the world, but then not be given the skills to live healthy lives. This is where Peck is hugely relevant for today.

As he delves into each chapter of his book, Peck talks a lot about love and reveals his thoughts on it based on his own experience. His insights on love are profound and are worth reading on their own. As a result, I find it fascinating, and not in the least surprising, that, just a couple of years after this book was published, Peck made an intentional Christian commitment. God was clearly hard at work in his life long before he decided to intentionally come to faith.

Something else Peck focuses on is the importance of delayed gratification as being crucial to mental health and spiritual growth. I remember the late Christian psychologist, Larry Crabb, talking a lot about this. He would say that, every time we feel the heat of intense temptation, whatever it is, and in that moment we don’t give in, our character grows. It’s something that Peck could have said himself.

Despite his clear wisdom shining through in this book, Peck himself was revealed, like all of us, as a person full of deep contradictions. Despite his clear wisdom on love, delayed gratification and spiritual growth, he acknowledged having extramarital affairs and being estranged from two of his children. Does this make him still worth reading or should he be dismissed? I think he is still worth reading. I say that as someone who has also made huge mistakes and caused a lot of hurt during my life. We are indeed a bundle of contradictions, and our past misdeeds don’t necessary disqualify us from penning the wisdom we have gained, often during the periods of those misdeeds.

Perhaps the most interesting aspects of this book for many readers, as they were for me when I first read it about 30 years ago, were those about romantic love. Peck says that romantic love is nature’s way of trapping us into marriage. That might sound like a cynical and somewhat jaded way to view marriage, but the point he is making is that the feeling of romantic love is not real love. It can be part of what real love is, but on its own, romantic love is not love. Real love is what happens when the feelings fade and you then decide to go forward in commitment. This is not to say, however, that feelings don’t come back. I’m a firm believer in the idea that commitment to another breeds feelings of affection. That’s certainly been my experience and I’m sure it’s been the experience of many readers as well.

I remember seeing Christian tracts many years ago that had the old drawing of a train with the locomotive at the front, a carriage and then the caboose at the back. The illustration had the word ‘fact’ on the locomotive, ‘faith’ on the carriage and ‘feelings’ on the caboose. The premise was that the Christian life is based on the fact of who Jesus is, we have faith in that and feelings are what come last. That’s not to undermine the importance of feelings, but they don’t drive why we are followers of Jesus. We don’t rely on feelings to believe in Him. We have faith in Him, whether we feel it or not. That’s what faith is – hope in something unseen. But it’s not a blind faith. It’s what the Jesus Movement people in the late 1960s and early 1970s called a ‘reasonable faith’. It’s a faith based on evidence.

So, there’s something to be still said for those old tracts and the message they conveyed. The rest of their theology was highly short-sighted and heavily short-changed the gospel, but the above-mentioned illustration still carries weight. And Peck’s explanation of love is still a very worthwhile one to follow.

Perhaps the aspect of the book I struggled with the most was the section on evil. I think one of his points in particular is too black and white to take account of the complexity of the human heart. I agree with Peck when he says that evil is real and that it is ineffective as a social force. But to also talk of ‘evil people’ seems to belie the reality that everyone is made in the image of God. I don’t believe anyone is totally evil. The Christian Gospel says that no one is irredeemable.

Despite what I think are some flaws in Peck’s thinking, The Road Less Travelled remains a timeless self-help classic. Life is indeed difficult, and wisdom such as committing ourselves to love, delaying gratification and practicing self-discipline is what many of us, including those of us in the church, need to hear. Written by a man with his own deep flaws, we can still take deep wells of wisdom from it to transform us into the beauty of Christlikeness.


Nils von Kalm is Nils von Kalm is a Melbourne-based writer who is passionate about the relevance of Jesus to life in the 21st century. He is the author of Bending Towards Justice: How the Gospel is More Relevant Than Ever in the 21st Century (2019) and can be found online at


Image credit: ‘On our way to Grampians, National park, on a moody day’ by Manuel Meurisse on Unsplash.

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