Trust Yourself: A Review of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach

Review by Aimee Roebuck-Johnson

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too…   What happens when you start to live as your true self?  There is certainly some fear in starting to become the person you were born to be.  If you’ve spent your life trying to do what is expected of you, your stepping out of that role may cause some consternation on the part of the people around you.  Your new way of living may expose the drab existence that they are still clinging to.

For those readers developing the practice of listening to a voice other than those that clamor around them, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a welcome companion.  This story has been described as a fable, a homily, and an allegory.  The essence of the tale is a seagull’s desire to fly and his developing understanding of what flying means.

The story begins with a seagull named Jonathan who dreams of flying better than a seagull has ever flown, instead of spending his days looking for scraps of food. The author writes:

Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight—how to get from shore to food and back again.  For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating.  For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight.  More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly….  This kind of thinking, he found, is not the way to make one’s self popular with other birds.

Jonathan tries to behave like other gulls, “…screeching and fighting with the flock around the piers and fishing boats, diving on scraps of fish and bread.”  His resolve not to pursue what he loves and to act like the rest of his species has some benefits:  He felt better for his decision to be just another one of the flock.  There would be no ties now to the force that had driven him to learn, there would be no more challenge and no more failure.”  In the end, however, he finds the mundane life of the average gull meaningless and goes back to his flying, trying to perfect his technique, sometimes failing, sometimes experiencing great success.

One day, after breaking the seagull flying speed record, he tells his Flock of the freedom he has experienced, 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!”  Instead of sharing his enthusiasm, the Flock shuns and banishes him, saying, 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.

Jonathan flies into exile, regretting only the blindness of his fellows.  He realizes that “boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull’s life is so short. As he is flying one day, two unusually beautiful and skilled seagulls join him and tell him that they have come to take him “home” to begin new kind of learning.  In his new home, he finds like-minded seagulls who experience the freedom of flight.

From time to time, he remembers Earth and thinks, If [I] had known there just a tenth, just a hundredth of what [I] know here, how much more life would have meant! He wonders whether there were others in his old Flock who were Outcasts because of wanting to live for more than just their stomachs.

He finds gulls who become his students and teaches them that flying involves skill, but also an understanding of unlimited freedom, which allows a gull to express his true nature, one with no limits.  His students have difficulty understanding the meaning of flight beyond the physical precision and skill that flight demands, but they agree to return to the Flock on Earth to find souls in search of flight.  Rumors circulate through the Flock about Jonathan’s identity and why this Outcast has returned. Curious Earth gulls flock to him and witness his ability to help others have a sense of their own freedom.  He believes that he is unique only in that he has begun to practice the truth of who he really is.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a parable about a seagull, but Jonathan himself is someone who followed Kipling’s creed.  He bore lies and twisted truths, success and failure.  No matter what happened, he kept after his pursuit of the freedom of his true self.

 

Bach, Richard.  Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  New York:  Scribner.  1970.  ISBN:  978-1-4391-6729-8.  184 pages.

 

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Comments

  1. DavidKawaski says:

    What am I to take from this? That I should not do as others expect? That I must not do as my manager expects? As my fiance expects? As the law expects? Or I will continue to live a “drab existence?” Is this your advice?

    • allthingsif says:

      Hi, David! Perhhaps it depends on what others, your manager, your fiance and the law expect. If spending your life meeting the expectations of others prevents you from meeting your own expectations, it’s possible you’ll never become your true self. Like Aimee, who reviewed the book, we suggest you read the book for yourself and make your own accessment of what the author was hoping to convey.

  2. DavidKawaski says:

    Thank you for your reply. There was a time when I did not do as the law expects. I did things that I was ashamed to admit, things so bad I could not repeat them, but then I found God and I knew then that God expected me to be an honest person and to live a humble life caring for others. It is then I found my fiance and a love that I did not know was possible. Why would I go back to breaking the law? Are you saying I should ignore the law and ignore my manager to be my true self? Why would I do that? Isn’t that irresponsible? What is it you are saying I should do that I am not doing right now?

    • Susan Hawkins says:

      Personally, I’m not saying anything, David. The purpose of our magazine is to provide our readers with literature, articles, poetry and music that impart the ideals for living a fulfilled life with integrity. It’s up to you to read what we provide, determine what the authors, poets and musician(s) are saying, and if their words have a visceral impact, do with them what you will to change your life. If you want to discuss this further and get feedback from our other readers, feel free to begin a topic in our forum. Thanks for digging deeper!

    • mshenga says:

      David,

      Jonathan Livingston is the metaphoric image for the person seeking out what he is called to do, and being ready to pay whatever price it takes. Sometimes the price is misunderstanding from those close to you. Some of the greatest people in the history of mankind had to pay this price for pursuing higher values – Socrates, Jesus, Giordano Bruno. “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” conveys the inner perception of the person (yes, that seagull is a Person!) on the path of discovery of this truth. You cannot ask anyone else to pay this price for you, but attainment of what Plato called “The Idea of Ultimate Good” is worth everything one’s got.

    • amrj says:

      Hello, David-
      I think you’ve brought up a set of questions that I also had to deal with while reading this book. Your response gets at the heart of the challenge of the book–what does being a whole person mean? From my experience, when you start following what is right for you, people who don’t understand that path (like the Flock that Jonathan came from) are likely criticize you and say that you should do what they expect of you. All of us who work and live in a society have things that we must do. The way that I see that is that doing things I am proud of (at work or in my society) gives me the freedom to focus on more spiritual things. It sounds like you’re proud of your choices now and that’s given you freedom. I salute you! amrj

  3. Susan says:

    David –

    This review really spoke to me, because it reminded me of this wonderful book and made me realize just what it means to me now – versus what it may have meant to me when I first read it as a youngster. As a devout Catholic now, I believe it reinforces my own strongly-held and hard-won belief that to follow in the path of good, we will ruffle a lot of feathers, so to speak! Didn’t Jesus tell us this exact thing? Think about our culture today, and you understand the courage it takes to do what is right. I liken today’s society with the flock of birds holding David back, wanting him to think only about his most base and superficial needs of eating in the way that expends the least amount of energy. David wanted something more, something better. Personally, I believe that what St. Augustine said is true – “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee…” We’re restlessly searching for the thing that will give us satisfaction, and we won’t find it until we find God. Obviously, not everyone will agree with that – it’s what I’ve found on my own personal spiritual journey. However, I don’t see this as advice to disobey laws or go against the expectations of those who love you necessarily, but rather to seek those things in life (for me, it’s God) that are of a higher more spiritual nature, and don’t let the group-think of society pull you back. And, yes – sometimes it will be the people you love who don’t want to see you grow spiritually, but if you hold true to the higher calling (again, for me I believe that’s God’s will), then in the end your rewards will be greater, regardless of how the world sees them. I see Kipling’s poem “If,” and this book reflecting the ideals of a Christian life.

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