Jonathan Livingston Seagull * Exile, Going Home, and Return

If I had to pick one book that “says it all” I would pick Jonathan Livingston Seagull, that beautiful spiritual parable by Richard Bach. In my view this book was channelled from first to last, a message from beyond, and a light for dark times – two themes of my blog here at Silk Road Visions.  Truly It illuminates for us the gifts of solitude, and above all the courage to take – when Life beckons –  the solitary path.

Here is one of the most poignant, life-affirming excerpts:

Exile
“It happened that morning, then, just after sunrise, that Jonathan Livingston Seagull fired directly through the center of the Breakfast Flock, ticking off two hundred twelve miles per hour, eyes closed, in a great roaring shriek of wind and feathers.

The Gull of Fortune smiled upon him this once, and no one was killed. By the time he had pulled his beak straight up into the sky he was still scorching along at a hundred and sixty miles per hour. When he had slowed to twenty and stretched his wings again at last, the boat was a crumb on the sea, four thousand feet below. His thought was triumph. Terminal velocity! A seagull at two hundred fourteen miles per hour! It was a breakthrough, the greatest single moment in the history of the Flock, and in that moment a new age opened for Jonathan Gull.

“Flying out to his lonely practice area, folding his wings for a dive from eight thousand feet, he set himself at once to discover how to turn. A single wingtip feather, he found, moved a fraction of an inch, gives a smooth sweeping curve at tremendous speed. Before he learned this, however, he found that moving more than one feather at that speed will spin you like a rifle ball…and Jonathan had flown the first aerobatics of any seagull on earth. He spared no time that day for talk with other gulls, but flew on past sunset. He discovered the loop, slow roll, the point roll, the inverted spin, the gull bunt, the pinwheel.

When Jonathan Seagull joined the Flock on the beach, it was full night. He was dizzy and terribly tired. Yet in delight he flew a loop to landing, with a snap roll just before touchdown. When they hear of it, he thought, of the Breakthrough, they’ll be wild with joy. How much more there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly! The years ahead hummed and glowed with promise.

The gulls were flocked into the Council Gathering when he landed, and apparently had been so flocked for some time. They were, in fact, waiting. Jonathan Livingston Seagull! Stand to Center! The Elder’s words sounded in a voice of highest ceremony. Stand to Center meant only great shame or great honor. Stand to Center for Honor was the way the gulls’ foremost leaders were marked. Of course, he thought, the Breakfast Flock this morning; they saw the Breakthrough! But I want no honors. I have no wish to be leader. I want only to share what I’ve found, to show those horizons out ahead for us all. He stepped forward.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, said the Elder, Stand to Center for Shame in the sight of your fellow gulls!

It felt like being hit with a board. His knees went weak, his feathers sagged, there was roaring in his ears. Centered for shame? Impossible! The Breakthrough! They can’t understand! They’re wrong, they’re wrong! ….for his reckless irresponsibility, the solemn voice intoned, violating the dignity and tradition of the Gull Family… To be centered for shame meant that he would be cast out of gull society, banished to a solitary life on the Far Cliffs.

one day, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, you shall learn that irresponsibility does not pay. Life is the unknown and the unknowable, except that we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we possibly can.

A seagull never speaks back to the Council Flock, but it was Jonathan’s voice raised. Irresponsibility? My brothers! he cried. Who is more responsible than a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a higher purpose for life? For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to live — to learn, to discover, to be free! Give me one chance, let me show you what I’ve found…

The Flock might as well have been stone. The Brotherhood is broken, the gulls intoned together, and with one accord they solemnly closed their ears and turned their backs upon him.”

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Going Home

He learned more each day…He learned that a streamlined high-speed dive could bring him to find the rare and tasty fish that schooled ten feet below the surface of the ocean…He learned to sleep in the air, setting a course at night across the offshore wind, covering a hundred miles from sunset to sunrise…

What he had once hoped for the Flock, he now gained for himself alone; he learned to fly, and was not sorry for the price that he had paid. Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull’s life is so short, and with these gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed….

They came in the evening, then, and found Jonathan gliding peaceful and alone through his beloved sky. The two gulls that appeared at his wings were pure as starlight, and the glow from them was gentle and friendly in the high night air. But most lovely of all was the skill with which they flew, their wingtips moving a precise and constant inch from his own.

Without a word, Jonathan put them to his test, a test that no gull had ever passed. He twisted his wings, slowed to a single mile per hour above stall. The two radiant birds slowed with him, smoothly, locked in position. They knew about slow flying. He folded his wings, rolled and dropped in a dive to a hundred ninety miles per hour. They dropped with him, streaking down in flawless formation.

At last he turned that speed straight up into a long vertical slow-roll. They rolled with him, smiling. He recovered to level flight and was quiet for a time before he spoke. “Very well,” he said, “who are you?” “We’re from your Flock, Jonathan. We are your brothers.” The words were strong and calm. “We’ve come to take you home.” “Home I have none. Flock I have none. I am Outcast. And we fly now at the peak of the Great Mountain Wind. Beyond a few hundred feet, I can lift this old body no higher.” “But you can, Jonathan. For you have learned. One school is finished, and the time has come for another to begin.”

As it had shined across him all his life, so understanding lighted that moment for Jonathan Seagull. They were right. He could fly higher, and it was time to go home. He gave one last look across the sky, across that magnificent silver land where he had learned so much. “I’m ready”, he said at last. And Jonathan Livingston Seagull rose with the two star-bright gulls to disappear into a perfect dark sky.”

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The Return

“…As the days went past, Jonathan found himself thinking time and again of the Earth from which he had come… He stood on the sand and fell to wondering if there was a gull back there who might be struggling to break out of his limits, to see the meaning of flight beyond a way of travel to get a breadcrumb from a rowboat. Perhaps there might even have been one made Outcast for speaking his truth in the face of the Flock.

And the more Jonathan practiced his kindness lessons, and the more he worked to know the nature of love, the more he wanted to go back to Earth. For in spite of his lonely past, Jonathan Seagull was born to be an instructor, and his own way of demonstrating love was to give something of the truth that he had seen to a gull who asked only a chance to see truth for himself…”

Sullivan, adept now at thought-speed flight and helping the others to learn, was doubtful. “Jon, you were Outcast once. Why do you think that any of the gulls in your old time would listen to you now? You know the proverb, and it’s true: The gull sees farthest who flies highest. Those gulls where you came from are standing on the ground, squawking and fighting among themselves. They’re a thousand miles from heaven — and you say you want to show them heaven from where they stand! Jon, they can’t see their own wingtips! Stay here. Help the new gulls here, the ones who are high enough to see what you have to tell them.

He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “What if Chiang had gone back to his old worlds? Where would you have been today?” The last point was the telling one, and Sullivan was right. The gull sees farthest who flies highest.

Jonathan stayed and worked with the new birds coming in, who were all very bright and quick with their lessons. But the old feeling came back, and he couldn’t help but think that there might be one or two gulls back on Earth who would be able to learn, too. How much more would he have known by now if Chiang had come to him on the day that he was Outcast!

“Sully, I must go back,” he said at last. “Your students are doing well. They can help you bring the newcomers along.”

Sullivan sighed, but he did not argue. “I think I’ll miss you, Jonathan,” was all he said.

“Sully, for shame!” Jonathan said in reproach, “and don’t be foolish! What are we trying to practice every day? If our friendship depends on things like space and time, then when we finally overcome space and time, we’ve destroyed our own brotherhood! But overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don’t you think we might see each other once or twice?”

Sullivan Seagull laughed in spite of himself. “You crazy bird,” he said kindly. “If anybody can show someone on the ground how to see a thousand miles, it will be Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” He looked at the sand. “Good-bye, Jon, my friend.”

“Good-bye, Sully. We’ll meet again.”

And with that, Jonathan held in thought an image of the great gull-flocks on the shore of another time, and he knew with practiced ease that he was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all.

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