What does a discussion on love have to do with personal growth? Everything, according to Scott Peck.
As I discussed at length in my previous post on The Road Less Traveled, growth implies pain and suffering; it requires jumping through many hurdles, and solving a long string of problems using what Peck calls “discipline”: an array of unnatural behaviors that include delaying gratification, assuming full responsibility for our lives and our actions, and a total and utter commitment to reality, both with others and with ourselves. And in order to have the strength, the drive to live with discipline, we must have love. For Scott Peck, love is the magic ingredient that makes a disciplined life possible.
It all starts with self-love, which is the premise for any growth. To love oneself means to desire constant and never ending improvement (I’m using Tony Robbins’ term, with the acronym CANI), which allows us to make the sacrifices that this improvement requires of us. It allows us to confront our fears and our laziness, and to summon to courage and strength to act in order to change our situation. Again, to cite Tony Robbins: change occurs when we get “disturbed”, when our beautiful image of ourselves (self-love) does not correspond with reality.A self-loving individual will not tolerate a situation where he is unhappy, unsatisfied, un-aligned with his “North Star”, to cite one of my recent posts.
On the other hand, if you don’t love yourself, if you don’t consider yourself valuable, you won’t expend the time and energy that are necessary to improve yourself. An individual that lacks self-love is more likely to succumb to resignation if not to sheer masochism. He does not believe he deserves better, he thinks that his current, dreadful situation is perhaps what he deserves. He sets the bar is very low because his self-love is very low.
LOVE VS THE FEELING OF LOVE
But the beauty of Peck’s discussion on love comes when he talks about love between two human beings. Boy I wish I had read this when I was in high school! Coming of age is a time of such confusion! The word love is abused, it tends to mean such very different things, and Scott Peck’s definition brings so much clarity and debunks the myths most of us grew up with.
“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”
The first thing that struck me in this definition is the fact that Peck explicitly defines love as a decision, not a feeling. One of his sub-parts is actually titled
“Love is not a feeling”
Too bad we were taught the exact opposite. That not only love is a feeling, but that it is THE feeling. And that we should spend our dating years actively searching for that feeling, because once we find it – the “romantic love myth” says – we can hold on to it for ever.
“The myth of romantic love is a dreadful lie.”
For Peck, the feeling of love is not love, because it is not necessarily concerned with someone else’s spiritual growth. The feeling of love can derive from a purely physical attraction – as Peck seems to believe is the case most of the time – or from a feeling of cathexis, an attachment that is on the verge of obsession. These feelings are, by definition, ephemeral.
TRUE LOVE: COMMITMENT, TIME, ATTENTION
But love, true love, transcends that. It is there even if and when the feeling of love is no longer there. It is rooted in commitment, in the firm and solemn decision to love that person, whether it’s a spouse or a son/daughter. The idea that love is a decision/an act of will may seem totally absurd.
I remember reading a similar concept in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Stephen Covey tells us about a man approaching him after a seminar telling him that his marriage is falling apart because the feeling of love “isn’t just there anymore”. Covey simply answers back “Well, then love her”, explaining that love is a verb, not a feeling, a truth that is enshrined in all the great literature. I must confess, at the time I was quite puzzled with that reply. I even recall a reviewer on Amazon ridiculing Covey’s answer, writing something like “well, that’s helpful! To save my marriage all I have to do is love my spouse… why didn’t I think of that”.
Now, however, I am a convert to that theory. Love is what you pour into the relationship. Peck goes even deeper. Love is, very concretely, the time we spend with our loved ones, the attention we give them, the sincerity with which we try to help them overcome their problems and, ultimately, the unbreakable desire to see them happy and fulfilled, not in our way but in their own very special and unique way (Peck calls this “spiritual growth”).
“Love is as love does”
The commitment, the energy and the dedication to loved ones are so formidable that Peck ventures to say that we can only love a very limited number of people, basically our spouse, our kids and our parents. Even here, I tend to agree. If you accept Peck’s definition of love, there is not way you can spread this love much thinner than that. That is not to say that you cannot have many other meaningful relationships, such as friendships. They just don’t fit the definition of love.
What is magical about love is that it enriches both the giver and the “taker” (I know, it is very cliché, but it’s true!). Loving is hard work – it is by no means effortless – but it more than repays the investment, because it allows both parties to grow simultaneously from the mutually enriching experience.
ALONE AND TOGETHER
Of course – Peck warns us – love is not to be confused with dependency. Those who seek love because they need to totally depend on someone else; and those who give love because they need someone to be totally dependent on them actually have a form of mental illness that is anything but love (in the first case he calls it “passive dependent character disorder”).
“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“
I really like the metaphor he uses of a base camp: love is like a base camp that enables us to climb solitary peaks. Two lovers are not siamese twins. Their relationship draws strength from the differences, from the solitary pursuits of one another. Paradoxically, the stronger the individuality, the stronger the relationship. If someone’s agenda is to conform the other person to his own image, this is by no means love, because the unique spiritual value of that person is left out of the equation.
“If you expect another person to make you happy, you’ll be endlessly disappointed”
This concept applies very well to young couples – which often go through a phase of wanting to do everything together – but also to mother-adolescent/young adult relationships. In the latter case, mothers have a difficulty to accept that their original maternal role is no longer called for. They painfully realize that they are not indispensable any more, and that the son or daughter is usually able to get by without her constant “help”. They often can’t seem to resign themselves to loosing one of their key identities. In Peck’s view, true love for their son/daughter should trump this, because, again, the spiritual growth of their “child” should come first. A child should not be the object of his mother’s personal frustrations; it should be, to paraphrase Kant, “an end in itself”.
LOVING, GIVING AND CONFRONTATION
One last point that I found particularly interesting is the idea that
“love is not giving, it is judicious giving”.
This of course applies very well to parenting – the obvious tenet that we should not spoil our children – but also to couples. Love is about work and commitment, but not about masochism and self-abnegation. This is because
“love and self-love must “go hand in hand” and “ultimately, they are indistinguishable”
The “judicious” component is also very important in couples, because there are times when a person is in a position to give good advice to the other, even though it might be painful to hear. Love implies also the courage to speak the truth, to make the other person come to his senses when he is flying of the rails; it doesn’t subscribe to the mantra that “my partner is always right” because that would signal not only dependency but also an utter disregard for the other person’s spiritual growth.
It should however be said that to confront another adult is always very tricky and somewhat dangerous, because, as Peck says “we are playing God”. When we give strong advice, we assume, whether we like it or not, the posture of moral or intellectual superiority, and that can lead to resentment and to strong emotional reactions. However, if we are in good faith and we truly have our partner’s best interest at heart, this “judicious giving” of advice is a powerful form of love.
As the beautiful song “How to Save a Life” from The Fray goes
Let him know that you know best
‘Cause after all you do know best