There is in my house a bookshelf reserved for “the museum.” By “museum” I mean a collection of books that have been, at one time or another, hugely important to me. Books from my childhood, my youth and then adulthood. From “Pippi Longstocking” to “Frankenstein.” From Mark Twain to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
But there are two books side by side on the top shelf that, together, tell the story of a radical, most uncomfortable (and therefore formative and life changing) confrontation of my youthful and egregiously inexperienced worldview. Together, the two books backed me into a corner, grabbed me by the throat and forced me to choose.
It took several years of inner war. But finally, reluctantly, begrudgingly, then peacefully and gratefully, I chose.
The first book was “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” published in 1970, although it didn’t fall into my hands until 1979. Written by Richard Bach, the book was a smash hit. By 1972, it had sold a million copies. Neil Diamond wrote songs about it. The book defined a time, place and culture.
It’s about a seagull named Jonathan. He tires of the day-to-day life of seagulls. He finds it empty and meaningless. He says “there has to be more to life than eating fishheads.” He wants to fly. He loves to fly. Flying becomes the abiding metaphor of the tale.
Jonathan radically commits himself to flying. Higher, farther, faster he soars, turns, stalls, dives. Flying is the measure of potential, and the good life is found by a never-ending reach for unrealized potential. Jonathan shapes and then chases the idea of limitless freedom. He says, out loud, not to trust our eyes because our eyes only see limits.
Friends and family are threatened by Jonathan’s rejection of the ordinary life of seagulls. They admonish him, criticize him, then ostracize him. Jonathan concludes that anyone who attempts to shirk off the shackles of accepted social convention will naturally be seen as either a god or a devil — both wrong. Mere projections of frightened, less-evolved seagulls whose grip on mediocrity is beneath Jonathan.
Now, the metaphor broadens. It becomes spiritual, even existential. Jonathan has been willing to suffer the rejection of his peers. Now, he sees he must “forgive” them for being so afraid. He must return to teach them what he learned. Jonathan the avatar.
Then, in graduate school, a teacher introduces me to the writings of James Kavanaugh. Two years after Bach’s meteoric best-seller, Kavanaugh publishes “Celebrate the Sun: A Love Story.” In it, we meet protagonist Harry Langendorf Pelican. Like his seagull compatriot, Harry rejects the ordinary life of a pelican, and reaches outward for his own potential. Like Jonathan, Harry falls into disfavor from family and friends. He considers his willingness to suffer the disfavor as a measure of his depth, commitment and bravery.
Then, Harry’s mother dies. And Harry is confronted with limits. No amount of affirming our life’s potential or hurling ourselves boldly in that potential changes the fact that there is, in the end, no such thing as limitless freedom.
The most joyous human freedoms emerge, paradoxically, from surrender to limits.
Kavanaugh’s book critiques Bach’s book. And I knew I must choose. And I did, finally, choose. I decided. I know it sounds like a riddle, but I decided there is ever-so-much more potential for freedom in limits. I began to see the idea of limitlessness as … limiting.
Bach says, “You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self — here and now. And nothing can stand in your way.”
I concluded, “Oh, actually tons of things can stand in your way. That’s the wonder and joy of it: the journey of finding authentic selfhood when so many things are standing in the way.”
Bach says, “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they’re yours. If they don’t, they never were.”
I concluded, “If you love someone, choose them with your whole heart! Never stop having high expectations of him/her, or of yourself!”
Bach says, “If you argue for your limitations, you get to keep them.”
I concluded, “Yes, many limitations are in fact self-imposed. Rethink those, for sure. But other limitations are immutable. We’re mortal. We age, weaken and die. We suffer. We grieve. We cannot will our own goodness. We cannot, no matter what we achieve, ever be wiser or stronger than The Mystery. Life will continue to happen, independent of our striving to be the sole author of our fate.”
Humility is the doorway to all the greatest treasures of the human experience.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.