No appreciation of the psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck, who died yesterday at the age of 69, can begin without quoting the famous opening line of his record-shattering best-seller, "The Road Less Traveled."
Peck not only made publishing history-his book was on the New York Times' best-seller list for an astounding 13 years-but, within the mental health field, he heralded a significant development. He was one of the first to recognize and publicly declare that human beings' religious instincts were not pathological, that they were in fact vital to an individual's health and sense of well-being.
When Peck first published The Road in 1978, religion was taboo in the mental health field. Sexual fantasies may have been the grist for psychotherapeutic sessions but, thanks to Freud, religious yearnings were suspect. At best, the father of psychoanalysis and modern psychiatry viewed religion as a necessary evil, an illusion functioning as superego, controlling and restraining the individual and the collective id, the surging impulses of the unconscious. This dismissive attitude toward religion and spirituality infiltrated the practice of psychotherapy.
Peck countered that stance, chastising fellow therapists for considering "any passionate belief in God to be pathological."
"I grew up in a tradition where science was value free and psychotherapy was supposed to be a science," Peck stated in a 1993 interview. "But the practice of psychotherapy has never been value free. Therapists have been practicing with a value system of secular humanism and have been unconscious of it. It's not a bad system," he added. "But I don't think it is enough."
The public, and gradually his profession, began to agree. Other psychotherapists like Thomas Moore ("Care of the Soul") and Clarissa Pinkola Estes ("Women Who Run with the Wolves") wrote best-sellers. Professional meetings began to offer sessions exploring the interface between psychology and religion. In 1996, a psychology textbook written by Edward F. Shafranske and published by the American Psychological Association showed that psychologists were beginning to incorporate spirituality into professional training and clinical work. It was one of the association's best sellers at its convention that year.
Today, research funded by The John Templeton Foundation, a grant-making institution that focuses its programs and resources in the area of religion and science, explores among other things the health aspects of forgiveness, the role of religion and spirituality in recovery from cardiac surgery, and the impact of love, while other colleges and universities support a wide range of psycho-spiritual studies. There are institutes for psychology and spirituality, and social workers have an association whose members explore this relationship. Today, you can easily find a Christian psychologist or a Buddhist social worker. And you could very well find yourself meditating, praying, or doing yoga with your therapist.
In the late 1980s when Common Boundary, the organization that I co-founded, first began holding conferences that explored the relationship of psychology and spirituality, most of the therapist-attendees had read Peck's book. They told us over and over again that they had been thinking about these sorts of issues for a long time, but hesitated to bring them up at professional meetings for fear of appearing foolish or unprofessional. Repeatedly, they expressed their relief at finding an arena in which they could speak freely of their own spiritual interests and discuss how to appropriately deal with their patients' beliefs and yearnings.
In the years after "The Road Less Traveled" first began climbing the best-seller charts, Peck became a familiar speaker at professional meetings, urging psychiatrists to learn how to take spiritual histories and calling for them to be trained in the different stages of spiritual growth. But to be fair, the apples were ripe for the picking. Scott Peck was the guy who plucked them and passed them around.
Peck, who had a Quaker background, eventually quit his private practice in favor of writing, lecturing, and leading workshops. He drew large crowds and developed into a unique and somewhat odd blend of psychiatrist and evangelist. He could, in any conversation or public speech, go from talking about counter-transference to declaring that: "Effective healing is a gift of the Holy Spirit."
At the end of his keynote address at the 1993 Common Boundary conference, Peck began to croon Bette Midler's ballad, The Rose, to a ballroom full of initially bewildered mental health professionals. But as he moved deeper into the song, the audience settled down, realizing the profundity of his message. It was the same message he had sent out 15 years earlier, though now tempered with tenderness.
Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed
That with the sun's love
In the spring
Becomes the rose.
Peck's legacy and greatest contribution was that he reminded mental health professionals-psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists, counselors-that they were healers, and that the process they dedicated themselves to--helping clients and patients face themselves--is painful. Life is difficult. Yet Peck went a step farther: he also reminded each of us that at our core we have the capacity for love and greatness of character. Pain, love, and hope are naturally woven together, he told us. And all of it is a gift of Spirit.