Golf and the Spirit: lessons for the journey
M Scott Peck Simon & Shuster, 326pp, £14.99
It's not just that the people I know are particularly screwed up (though they are), but usually when I scan along someone's bookshelves, I find a copy of M Scott Peck's first book, The Road Less Travelled. If there's only one self-help book on the rack, then this is it.
It seems that my friends are not alone. The book spent 12 years on the New York Times bestseller list, and now rests on millions of bookshelves between fluff such as Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am? and I'm OK, You're OK. Disillusioned with religion and frustrated with conventional psychiatry, millions of lost souls around the globe have turned to this appealing combination of God without the dogma and shrinkery without the couch - a Jung-lite.
I've got a copy of it, too, which I was given by a psychotherapist as a sort of set text. Recently (it's been more than three years since I last saw him), his secretary telephoned me, asking for its return. I haven't sent it back, partly because bits of the cover were torn off to make cigarette filters and partly because it irks me that someone to whom I've handed over briefcases full of cash should go to the trouble of tracking me down for a £5 paperback.
Any reluctance to return it is certainly not down to a love of the book. While it undoubtedly contains many essential spiritual truths, they are truths that are present in most, if not all, religious writings, and Peck came across as rather too pleased with himself for having distilled all this knowledge, and smug as hell about being noble enough to embark on a "spiritual journey".
Thirteen books and 22 years later, Peck has been working on his smugness, cutting and polishing it, so he can hold it to the sun that shines from his own backside and bathe in its brilliant light. This is apparent even in the introduction to this book. "To help keep you focused," he writes, "I have begun each chapter with a brief aphorism that attempts to capture the chapter's most essential message. Some of these aphorisms may seem a bit cryptic at the start. Should this be the case, I suggest you return to the aphorism as soon as you have completed that particular chapter. If you still find it cryptic, then please take the time to meditate upon it. Thank you."
The aphorisms that he considers worthy of further meditation include: "There was a woman who learned while driving her car to always look both to the left and the right as well as both ahead and behind. She never had an accident." (Lucky there weren't any kids dropping breeze-blocks off motorway bridges where she comes from.) Just how cryptic is that little "aphorism"?
Golf, Peck believes, is more than just a metaphor for life; golf is life, and more than that, it is "life condensed". Life becomes a metaphor for golf. If we allow it, golf will teach us about ourselves and even about God. In becoming better golfers, we can become better people. Anyone who has kept an eye on the career of Nick Faldo or watched the last Ryder Cup will know that being an excellent golfer doesn't mean that you're going to become an excellent human being.
To help us learn about ourselves, Peck plays a round with us on an imaginary 18-hole golf course on the island of Exotica. Each themed hole brings us up against an aspect of ourselves: our anger, impatience, arrogance and attachment ("cathexis") to our habitual, destructive ways of acting, and our reluctance to change, even for the better. He asks us first to acknowledge our faults, then to empty ourselves of them - to practise "kenosis", and to go with the flow rather than try to impose our wills on either the golf course or our lives.
If it all sounds like a 21st-century Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for affluent suburbanites, this is because Peck was once a Zen Buddhist, although he now describes himself as a Christian mystic. But this book, in the end, is not really about golf or spirituality. It is about Peck - his life, golfing holidays, little foibles, career and his books. As each chapter is topped by one of his aphorisms, so is it tailed by lengthy notes, including dozens of plugs for his other books and a complaint that "bogey" is too negative an association when, for most golfers, it's not a bad score.
This association, he warns, should be changed, "otherwise it seems to me we shall be holding ourselves up to outrageously high expectations and thereby causing serious potential harm to our inner child". And none of us would want to do that.