Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
Jonathan Livingston Seagull searches for the secret of perfect flight but finds the thing he needs most—perfect love.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly. While crowds of seagulls dodged and fought for bits of food where a fishing boat chummed the water, Jonathan practiced flying high and fast. That’s how Richard Bach introduces readers to his endearing main character, Jonathan Livingston Seagull in the book by the same name.
Jonathan stood alone among the other seagulls in the Flock for whom eating took precedence over flying. Food did not matter to Jonathan, only flying. That did not settle well with the other seagulls.
“Why is it so hard to be like the rest of the flock?” Jonathan’s mother asked. “This flying business is all very well, but you can’t eat a glide, you know.” His father added, “Don’t you forget that the reason you fly is to eat.”
Jonathan tried to behave like other gulls, screeching and fighting with the Flock around piers and fishing boats for scraps of fish and bread. But it didn’t work. And so off he went again, far out at sea, hungry but happy. He aspired to learn all that he could about flying high, twisting, turning, and diving at high speeds.
But soon, his aerial exploits touched off a crisis that changed Jonathan’s life forever.
One morning just after sunrise, Jonathan experimented with a high-altitude dive. But unfortunately, he reached a speed that made it difficult to pull up. Jonathan Livingston Seagull fired right through the center of the breakfasting Flock at two hundred twelve miles per hour, sending a thousand or so seagulls squawking and fluttering in all directions.
Fortunately, Jonathan recovered without crashing, and no one among the stunned multitude lost their life. As he soared up to four thousand feet, Jonathan reflected on his triumph. He believed his speed record amounted to “the greatest single moment in the history of the Flock.” The Elders, however, did not share his ecstasy, and they called him before the Council Gathering.
When the Council Gathering summoned Jonathan to appear before the Elders, he at first thought they intended to honor him because of his breakthrough that morning. “But I want no honors,” he mused, “I want only to share what I’ve found.” But the Council had no such intention when the Elder commanded, “Stand to Center for shame.”
Jonathan’s knees weakened. “Impossible!” he thought. “They’re wrong, they’re wrong.”
The Elder solemnly accused Jonathan of “violating the dignity and tradition of the Gull Family.” Bringing such shame upon the Flock meant only one thing: banishment to a solitary life on the Far Cliffs. The Elder lectured Jonathan, pompously rehearsing the traditions of the Flock. “We are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we possibly can.”
Jonathan insisted that life held a higher purpose than scrambling after fish heads. But his words fell on deaf ears. The Elders turned their backs to him, and Jonathan Seagull sorrowfully flew away beyond the Far Cliffs.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull resorted to the one thing he loved more than anything in the world. What he had once hoped for the Flock, he gained for himself alone. He learned more and more about flying as the days became months and the months, years. He felt no regret for the price he’d paid.
Then one day, an older and wiser Jonathan Seagull met up with two radiant gulls that flew with more skill and precision than he’d ever witnessed. They introduced themselves as brothers who’d come to take him home.
Having finished one school, the time had come for another to begin. He took one last look at the silver land where he’d learned so much. Then, with the two star-bright gulls, he disappeared into a perfect dark sky.
Jonathan soon discovered that he’d only begun to learn about flying. And in this new place, he found himself among others seeking perfection in that which they most loved to do. They spent hour after hour practicing flight, testing advanced aeronautics under the guidance of higher-level Gulls like Sullivan, Jonathan’s instructor.
One evening when the gulls stood together on the sand, Jonathan mustered the courage to approach Chiang, the Elder Gull. Chiang could outfly any gull in the Flock and possessed skills the others had not yet come to know.
Jonathan wondered if this new world might be Heaven. Chiang assured him that they weren’t in Heaven and added, “Heaven is being perfect.” The Elder Gull asked Jonathan about his ability to fly fast. “I … I enjoy speed,” Jonathan replied.
“You will begin to touch Heaven, Jonathan, in the moment that you touch perfect speed.” Jonathan listened intensely as Chiang added, “And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour … perfect speed, my son, is being there.”
Chiang worked with Jonathan developing new and wonderful skills. Jonathan amazed his teacher at the rapidity with which he absorbed instruction. Finally, the mentor perceived that the most difficult, powerful, and enjoyable training of all now lay within Jonathan’s reach.
“You will be ready to begin to fly up and know the meaning of kindness and love,” Chiang said.
A month went by, during which Chiang helped his students understand and practice the perfect invisible principle of all life. Then the wise Elder Gull left them. But before leaving, he imparted these last words. “Jonathan, keep working on love.”
There it is. Perfect flight only serves as a metaphor for perfect love. That’s what Chiang hoped Jonathan would discover.
Jonathan’s love for flying and the pursuit of perfect flight at the expense of all else amounted to a selfish desire for himself. It served him reasonably well up until now, but all the while, he lacked the highest principle of all life: Perfect love.
Jonathan Seagull’s mind began settling on home and the Flock that cast him out. Something tugged at him to return, but just what it was evaded him at first.
Richard Bach writes, “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.” Only there could he discover the secret to perfect love.
Sullivan Gull attempted to talk Jonathan out of going back. “Jon, you were Outcast once. Why do you think that any of the gulls in your old time would listen to you now?”
But Jonathan returned, much to the chagrin of the Flock. He picked up other outcasts and taught them what he knew about flight and the most difficult, powerful, and enjoyable training of all. One of the outcasts, Fletcher Lynd Seagull, became his prized student and friend.
During a particularly tricky maneuver, the Flock witnessed Fletcher crashing into a cliff. The accident should have killed him, but miraculously it didn’t. When Fletcher and Jonathan returned to the Flock, four thousand gulls, seeing Fletcher alive, became frightened and rose up against them.
Soon the Flock forgot its insanity, but Fletcher had not. He questioned Jonathan’s instructions “about loving the Flock enough to return to it and help it learn.” Fletcher didn’t understand how Jonathan could love a mob of birds that had just tried to kill them.
Jonathan patiently explained. “You don’t love hatred and evil … you have to practice and see the real gull, the good in every one of them … that’s what I mean by love.” Jonathan had discovered perfect love. Affection for the other outcasts came naturally. But love for the enemy took it to the level championed by the wisdom of Chaing.
Jonathan Seagull vanished into empty air, leaving a doubtful Fletcher Gull behind. After a time, Fletcher dragged himself into the sky and faced a brand-new group of students from the Flock.
Fletcher always remembered Jonathan’s words. Even as he tried to look appropriately severe for his students, “he suddenly saw them all as they really were … and he more than liked, he loved what he saw.”
Richard Bach’s book on the surface appears to espouse the search for freedom and individuality and the evilness of traditions and laws that challenge such aspirations.
But the real theme that emerges focuses on love, and especially the perfect love that embraces even one’s enemies.
In Jonathan’s case, he wanted to learn the elements of perfect flight; but he needed to learn the principles of perfect love. So it is with us all. A gap often exists between what we want and what we need.
Once, the Son of God met a wealthy young man who wanted eternal life. The man enumerated all the good things he’d done that he thought merited the immortality he desired.
Jesus, loving the man, responded to his petition by pointing out, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
The rich young man wanted eternal life, but first, he needed love for the class of people men of his social status ordinarily despised—people who likewise regarded the rich with contempt. It’s easy to love our kind and kindred. But loving those outside our circle of comfort becomes quite a challenge. Nevertheless, only by doing so does love reach perfection.
Jesus sat down with His disciples on a mountain and taught them about receiving blessings such as the Kingdom of Heaven, comfort, satisfaction, mercy, and the like.
However, the sermon didn’t end there. He concluded by introducing a new principle that to this day, the world deems so radical and unobtainable that it’s seldom practiced.
First, our Lord spelled out the prevailing idea regarding love. “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matthew 5:43).
Hate in modern English may seem a little strong. In the original Greek, loving and hating expressed the thought of preferring one above the other. Humankind’s general and acceptable practice is to love or prefer our friends over those who aren’t.
The teaching of Jesus, like that of the Elder Gull, Chiang, in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, radically departs from the standard practice. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
After all, Jesus asks, what reward is there in loving only those who love us? Everyone does that. Jesus concludes his discourse on love with the challenge, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Perfect? Like the Father? How is that possible? Jesus, of course, speaks of perfect love. He reminds His disciples that the Father in Heaven makes the sun rise, and the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous without partiality. That’s perfect love, loving those who love you and those who don’t—loving the unlovable.
This perfection lies within the grasp of all, and its rewards go beyond what we can imagine. “Your reward is great in heaven,” Jesus promises. That’s being there.