( This article is a retelling and a personal interpretation of the story – “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach. )
My name is Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
I am a bird. A seagull, to be precise. And I am going to tell you my story.
But, you may ask what’s so special about my story? To tell you the truth, I don’t even know it myself. There may or may not be any lessons or wisdom to be learned from it. And if you do find any wisdom in it, trust me, that wisdom was there in you all along. The story might just be a way to acknowledge what has always been known by everyone but rarely practiced in real life.
So, here it goes…
I, Jonathan Seagull, was born near a seashore. I was born to a set of parents who had lived their entire life on that seashore. As I was growing up, they taught me the two most important rules to lead a normal and safe life. The first rule was to always remain near the shore and never venture out on the sea. The reason was obvious – we always got an ample amount of scrap fish from the fishing boats that used to sail around the shore. There was no need for us to go hunting for fish in the sea. The second rule was to never fly too high or too fast. The reason was again obvious – because it was dangerous for your life and besides it served no useful purpose.
But, as you might have guessed, this story would not have been much of a story if I would have followed those rules. On one particular day, when the sky was covered with grey clouds I decided to fly higher. I decided to go to the heights where no one ever thought of going. I had always loved flying. So I flew. Higher and higher I went, and faster and faster I flew. Everything started feeling different to me. The height, the speed, the winds, everything felt so alive for the first time.
I looked down and saw my fellow seagulls, hovering above the fishing boats near to the shore, where there was an easy supply of fish. They remained oblivious to the joys of flying high.
“There must be something more to life than just eating and surviving,” I thought. I was different. I enjoyed flying. To everyone else flying was just a means to an end. For me, it became an enigma that I wanted to crack. And from then onwards I started spending more and more time flying, than on scavenging for food.
“Why, Jon, why?” my mother asked. “Why is it so hard to be like the rest of the flock, Jon?”
My father advised, “this flying business is all very well, but you can’t eat a glide, you know. Don’t you forget that the reason you fly is to eat. If you really want to study something, study food, and how to get it.”
I could not believe their words. How can a bird slave away his whole life just collecting scraps of food and twigs for his shelter? There must be a higher purpose to life. And I resolved to find it even if I have to face ridicule from others. If I could not find the meaning in staying low above the ground I will find it in the skies above by stretching my potential to the limits.
Thus I started my training. I was joyous. I was free. I could anticipate what it would feel like when I will realize my potential. But the road to glory was not easy. No matter how hard I tried I just could not break the speed barrier. The days I spent in such hardship and pain gave birth to doubt in my mind. I started questioning my potential.
I said to myself, “I must forget this foolishness. I must fly home to the flock and be content as I am, as a poor limited seagull. I am a seagull like every other seagull, and I must fly like the others.”
And so I quit.
Honestly, I felt better about my decision – to be just another one of the flock. There would be no ties now to the force that had driven me to learn, there would be no more challenge and no more failure. And it was pretty, just to stop thinking.
Oh yes, I must admit that there is comfort in becoming ordinary. There is comfort in flowing in the routine. You don’t have to struggle to create your own path because you can just follow the path which others have laid before you. There will be plenty of people to accompany you on this path and you will never feel alone walking on it. You will feel like you belong.
But on the other hand, the dread of the mundane is unbearable. The fear of seeing your life drifting away is intolerable. And soon you find that the comfort in the flow of the routine was fake and temporary, and you find yourself longing to fly again.
And due to this fear, a few days later I was back again. Flying in the skies. Trying again. Failing again. But then came the breakthrough I was waiting for. I tasted my first victory. I flew at the speed which I thought was impossible for me a few months ago. In that moment, I got the proof that I was indeed capable. Capable enough to chase and achieve my dreams.
But every victory comes with a sacrifice. Once you have transcended your limits you soon realize that now you don’t belong to your flock. You can’t mix in with others. You feel different and others can sense that difference too. You stop living by the rules. You can’t understand why others are living under such unreasonable rules. And then the day arrives when they banish you from their group. For me, it was the day when the Elders of my Flock ordered me to stand before the council and to listen to the punishment they had decided for me because I had broken the rules by flying too high.
“Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” said the Elder, “Stand in the center for shame in the sight of your fellow gulls!” To be centered for shame meant that I would be cast out of gull society, banished to a solitary life on the Far Cliffs.
I protested but the Elder continued, “…one day, Jonathan, 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.”
“Irresponsibility? My brothers!” I 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!”
But it was decided. I was banished. Condemned to live on the far side of the cliffs, alone.
But as the saying goes – ‘when the student is ready the teacher arrives.’ It was evening and I was gliding through the sky when two gulls appeared by my side. Gentle, friendly, and glowing in the starlight. Without a thought, I decided to test their flying skills. I flew at my highest speed, dived from heights, rolled in mid-flight. But everything I did they did it much better and more gracefully. At last, I said, “Very well. Now tell me, 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 higher, to take you to your real home.”
“But I am an outcast. I have no home. Besides, I can’t take myself any higher. It’s the highest I can go,” I said.
“But you can Jonathan. For you have learned. One school is finished, and the time has come for another to begin.”
I understood at once that these were the seagulls who were once like me. They had already realized the true meaning of flying. Now they had come to welcome me into their life. Into a world where nobody was shamed for flying high and fast in life. I gave one last long look across the sky, across the magnificent silver land where I had learned so much.
“I am ready,” I said at last. And then with the starlight gulls on my sides, I ascended with them into the perfect dark sky.
Thus, I found my tribe. I was now living among my equals. I was learning more and more about flying. I was flying at speeds that I thought were impossible for seagulls. I was performing aerobatics with elegance. I was happy and living the life of my dreams. But there were not many birds there. I asked my instructor Sullivan about it. He said that only a few birds ever realize their true potential. Some birds have to go through many cycles of life to reach this place.
I soon found a mentor. The eldest amongst them, named Chiang. He taught me all that he knew. Even things like instant travel from one point to another and how to talk through your mind. To me, this place felt like heaven but my mentor told me, “Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect.” He then told me that this place was not the end. There was much more to learn in life.
Then one day, the time came for his departure, or in other words, ascension. He was ready to transcend to the next level. Before leaving, he told me, “Jonathan,” and these were the last words that he spoke, “keep working on love.”
For days on end, I pondered over what Chiang meant when he said, “keep working on love.”
And finally, I got it. I realized that everything that I had done till this point was for me. Yes, it was my own hard work and sacrifices that paid off but at the centre of it all was my own self-interest. That was what had driven me till now. I recalled how the seagulls who lived here came to help me when I was all alone at the cliffs. They had nothing to gain by teaching me. But they did it out of love. And I thought about my talent, my greatness and I found it hollow. For what worth is that greatness that limits itself to a single individual? True greatness is that which is shared, which flows from you and helps others to become great too.
In that instant, I resolved to go back. Back to my earlier flock that has banished me. Not with resentment in my heart, but with forgiveness and love. I resolved to go back and help those struggling seagulls who might need a helping hand to break out of their limits. To help those seagulls who, like me, might be searching for a deeper meaning in flying. And I knew in my heart that’s how it was supposed to be.
I came back to the cliffs, those same cliffs where I lived in my period of banishment.
Fletcher Lynd Seagull was his name. A lone seagull who, just like me, an outcast, was practicing there to fly at a fast speed. He was talking bitterly with himself.
“I don’t care what they think. I’ll show them what flying is! I, Fletcher Lynd Seagull, from now on will be a pure outlaw, if that’s the way they want me to become. And I’ll make them so sorry…” he said.
“Don’t be so harsh on them, Fletcher Seagull, because one day they will see what you see. Forgive them,” saying this, I approached him and flew around him. His eyes were widened when he saw me flying without even moving my wings.
“How can you do that?” he asked.
“All it needs is a little bit of practice,” I said, “Do you want to learn that?”
“YES!,” he cried out.
“But will you forgive your flock and maybe one day go back to them and teach them too?”
“YES!” he said again.
I smiled and said, “Alright, Fletch. Let’s begin by learning Level Flight…”
In the next three months, I had six other students, all outcasts, yet curious about the strange new idea of flight for the joy of flying. I welcomed them. I taught them what I knew. I spoke to them of very simple things – that it is the right of a seagull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of his being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form.
But their conditioning was strong. They would often complain, “You’re wasting your time with us, Jonathan! We are too dumb! Too stupid! We try and try, but we’ll never get it!”
To this, I replied, “Each of us is in truth an idea of the Great Gull, an unlimited idea of freedom.”
“How do you expect us to fly as you fly?” came another voice. “You are special and gifted and divine, above other birds.”
“The only difference between you and the gifted ones,” I said, “is that they have begun to understand what they really are and have begun to practice it.”
And soon, the day came when they too began transcending their limitations. They were flying the way they wanted to. Higher, faster, and with absolute freedom. Some flew faster than the wind. Some flew in circles like whirlpools. Some were performing aerobatics. While some were just gliding blissfully without flapping a single feather. And when I saw them, each one of them reminded me of myself breaking the barriers for the first time. I was proud and happier than I ever was. At that moment I understood the wisdom behind Chiang’s words when he said to me, “keep working on love.”
When I look at it now, I hardly have to put in any effort. It was not the training they wanted. All they ever wanted was to be told by someone that it’s OK to be different and just a pat on the back to confirm that it’s OK to go after what they really want. Someone to believe in them when even they have given up on them. The world is full of such birds who just need a pat on the back. It’s funny how they thanked me for what they achieved. But all I had done was to step into their world while embracing my uniqueness without feeling ashamed. That was proof enough to make them believe in themselves.
And it was after a month that I decided to visit the Shore, to visit my old Flock.
My students were hesitant, “We’re outcasts! We can’t force ourselves to go where we’re not welcome, can we?”
“We’re free to go where we wish and to be what we are,” I answered.
“Well, we don’t have to obey the rules if we are not the part of the Flock, do we?” said Fletcher and stood by my side.
And off we went.
When we reached there, the seagulls recognized me and they recognized all the other outcasts. They were shocked to see banished seagulls roaming amidst them. Nothing was changed. Their glances conveyed their disgust. But I felt no shame this time. It was gone. It was so baffling for me to realize that all the shame and guilt that I carried back then in my mind was due to the reason that I was not ready to accept my own uniqueness, my own self. But now, since I had accepted myself the way I was, there was no guilt, no shame, no fear.
The Council of Elders stood before me and blamed me for breaking the code of banishment. But I told them there is no code that binds me now. They just stood there. Speechless and powerless. And it dawned on me, for the first time, that they never had any power over me. It was me who gave power to their words. It was I that took their words as truth. But now, when I no longer believed in their rules and opinions, they could not suppress me anymore.
I roamed around freely and flew without feeling guilty. And as months went by, more and more seagulls approached me to learn how to fly better. I guess they were just waiting for someone to lead the way. Slowly and steadily our circle grew. More and more seagulls joined us. We took them all in. We taught them all that we knew. They were discovering the joy of flight for the first time and they were grateful.
My students now became teachers for the younger seagulls. We were not the discarded members of society now. The seagulls looked up to us with respect now.
They revered me. For them, I was a prophet, a messiah, a mystic. “You are the great one,” they would say. But I was just the same individual as I was before. I was no more or less than anyone. Everyone else has just the same power to become like me.
But I was becoming a myth now. “The price of being misunderstood,” I thought, “They call you devil or they call you god or worse they call you gifted.” I often pondered, “why is it that the hardest thing in the world is to convince a bird that he is free, and that he can prove it for himself if he’d just spend a little time practicing? Why should that be so hard?”
I slowly realized that I myself was becoming a limitation for them. The highest dream that they can think of was of becoming like me. I understood that now was the time for me to leave. Before they turn me into a God, I have to go. And so it was decided.
One day I called Fletcher, to hand over the reins to him.
“Me leading?” Fletcher protested, “What do you mean, me leading? You’re the instructor here. You can’t leave.”
“Can’t I?” I replied. “Don’t you think that there might be other flocks, other Fletchers that need an instructor more than this one? You don’t need me any longer.”
Fletcher understood and nodded.
Just before leaving, I told him, “And Fletch, don’t let them spread silly rumours about me, or make me a God. I am a seagull, just like everybody else.”
And I left.
For the next few years, a revolution came about. A revolution in which every other seagull flew to the best of his abilities. Fletcher’s own students, and students of his students, were flying with precision and a kind of joy that has never been seen before. They understood what I taught them. It was a golden age, for a while.
But then slowly my name became a myth. My teachings and my legacy became holy. They made me an ideal. And ideals are always above the reach of common folks. Soon, even thinking to reach my level was blasphemy, hubris, vanity for them. All that greatness that once belonged to everybody had now become an elusive dream.
Fletcher was honored and revered by the new students, but he was no longer heard. But soon, the time came for his ascension too. He was ready to move to the next level and thus one day he just disappeared while flying in mid-air.
This fortified their ill-beliefs that one has to be blessed to become great. The birds now practiced less and less. They developed strange rituals, superstitions around flying. They erected monuments, of seagulls like me and Fletcher, and worshipped them to learn what they could have learned, just by practicing alone.
But now, everything we taught was turned into dogma. No one knew what oneness was, what perfection was, but these were such serious concepts that a gull could never ask another gull, what they all really meant, without risking himself to be called a fool.
Fewer and fewer seagulls flew now. Fewer and fewer seagulls believed in themselves. In old times, there were rules and restrictions around flying, but now there were rituals and superstitions around it. Everything came back to where it all started.
But no matter how dark it gets, a little spark is all that is required to lit up a flame which then turns into a fire. No matter how dense the ignorance becomes, someone somewhere starts to dispel it, just by asking questions. A stifling world will always keep creating rebels. These rebels discredited everything the Great Jonathan taught. They rejected the institution. And in doing so took the first steps towards realizing the truth.
Anthony Seagull was his name. He rejected blind faith. He asked for proof of how any seagull can fly at 200 miles per hour. He asked how Jonathan did that. But only got mystical answers from his teachers. Disillusioned and tired of all the myths of Jonathan, he flew away from the flock. He went his own way, as did more and more other young birds, rejecting the ritual and ceremony that encrusted the name of Jonathan Seagull, sad at the futility of life but at least honest with themselves, brave enough to face the fact that it was all futile.
When I first saw him, he was flying alone over the sea. Thinking deeply and looking down. I knew that look very well. It was the look of a seagull for whom life was meaningless and the only good option left for him was to end it. And in that instant he stopped flapping his wings and let him drop down, rushing his body to meet the hard surface of the sea. That’s when I knew I had to show myself.
About midway in his death-dive, as he was nearing the sea, I flew past his right wing with such a roaring speed that it woke him from his thoughts. Anthony, startled, bent his wings into dive-brakes and looked with amazement at the trail I left.
I landed on the shore by performing yet another impossible feat, and by this time Anthony flew towards me shouting, “Hey, wait up!”
He came to me. “What was that?” Anthony was awake and alive, and for the first time in his life inspired, “How did you do that?”
“Oh, that was just some fun flying. If you really want to do it well it takes a bit of practice. But it’s a nice looking thing, don’t you think?”
“Of course it is,” he said, still processing in his mind the miracle he saw.
Then he was silent for a moment and I saw the look in his eyes, which every learner has when he wants to learn something badly. He was preparing himself to ask his next question.
But I already knew what he was going to ask. I just nodded and smiled.
I was ready to start it all over again.