I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull this week. I know, I’m about 30 years behind on that one. I did read Illusions, another Richard Bach short, back then, so I didn’t completely miss the boat. Both are along the lines of the ascetic tradition. That is, forsake the mundane simple pleasures and rise above the rest, go on journey of self discovery, find a mentor or one finds you, then return and pass it on.
Bach uses the symbolism of death. In both books, people or birds don’t die, they move on to a higher consciousness. I like to believe that is what will happen when I actually die, but Bach is not talking about actual death. It is symbolic of moving on. Garrison Keillor often tells stories on the News from Lake Wobegon about people who excel in their little home town, then move on to bigger arenas. It might be a high school kid who does well in athletics then graduates and finds college level competition more difficult, or someone who grows a 200 pound pumpkin then finds out that last year’s State Fair champion was over 1,000 pounds.
In Seagull, Jonathan is outcast from his flock because he concentrates on improving his ability to fly instead of simply using flight as a means to get out by the fishing boats, find a little food and get back. He wants to do more than just survive, and others see this as a threat to their well ordered system. He lives happily but alone, practicing his flight skills, then dies and is led to a small group of highly evolved gulls who are doing the same. He finds out he is not the only one who has made these discoveries about flight. He achieves even more and finds others with whom he can practice and learn.
Robert Bly once said, to some up and coming writers, that they need to be careful when telling these types of stories. Not Jonathan Livingston in particular, but stories of reaching for your dreams. He used the analogy of an old grain silo that is full of birds. The birds can get in through a broken door at the bottom and find some left over grain on the ground. Once inside they see some shafts of light coming in through holes in the ceiling. They fly up to that light thinking it is the way out, but the holes are too small. They flap around up there, confused. Sometimes the way out is through the darker door at the bottom.
But then Bly is a darker guy. I don’t want to be the one who says that you should not think positively. Hard work, concentration on a skill, practice, setting your sites on a higher purpose, those are all good things. Believing that desiring something is all that is needed to make it happen, not so good. A degree of commitment and perseverance is important, but not a guarantee. When I get to the end of my life, I want to say I gave it my best shot, and Richard Bach encourages that. Sometimes he also makes statements that are too absolute for me.
Having not read the book when it was written, I have the advantage of only seeing its affect on the culture. I see that most people are stuck in the first chapter, when Jonathan is figuring out how to fly many times faster than any Seagull can imagine. After a failure, he almost gives in to the words of his father to go back to lead a normal life with the flock, then he gets an inspiration and increases his speed again. The lesson of following your heart is one we all want to get. If only it was so simple.
The lessons of humility, kindness and seeing greatness in the faces of those around you who are just squawking and complaining are not as easy. These lessons come later, starting with his mentor, but we don’t hear much from the mentor about them. At some point in a mentor relationship, the student must find his own path. The rest of the book is Jonathan Livingston on that path. He sees the value of joining the flock and having the patience to explain his vision and guide others to find what he found.
Unfortunately, much of that is easily passed over in the text and lost in long passages about spectacular flights at high speed. Only once does a bird pay the ultimate consequence of such acrobatics, and he is immediately saved from death and returned to earth by our hero. If only we had such a hero.