Lessons in “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”


Alberto Rivera

Logic and Argumentation

D. Brunt

Lessons in Jonathan Livingston Seagull

January 7, 2010


I was recently introduced to a beautiful story written by Richard Bach entitled Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It is a very hopeful and magical work. I will select some of the important lessons contained in this parable, and offer how I relate to them based on my experience. However, let us begin by recounting the tale.

This very mystical story is told simply. The title character, Jonathan, is banished from his flock because his innovations in flight challenge the Flock’s norms. Branded an “Outcast”, he spends years in solitude developing his talents and broadening his awareness. He enjoys a rich life in exile, whose joys he is unable to share with other gulls: “What he had once hoped for the Flock, he now gained for himself alone; he learned to fly. […] Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull’s life is so short, and with these gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed.” (36)

One day, Jonathan is visited by a pair of brilliant birds, and ascends with them to another plane of existence. There, he is free to learn all he wants about flight with likeminded creatures. He develops quickly, and learns to transcend time and space from Chiang, the flock’s leader. After teaching Jonathan this skill, Chiang vanishes. Jonathan shares what he learned from Chiang with his new flock, but as time passes, he feels a deeper calling. Jonathan chooses to return to Earth to help other “Outcasts”.

Fletcher Lynd Seagull, a new Outcast, is approached by Jonathan fresh off the heels of his banishment, and becomes Jonathan’s first student. Jonathan teaches a small group of seagulls, all Outcasts, about flight and their own limitlessness. This tiny group eventually returns to their kind and begins to display its talents. They persevere despite the initial resistance of the Flock, reintegrating itself into seagull society, and drawing more gulls to the study of flight. The wealth of knowledge they possess begins to transform the lives of the Flock’s members. Finally, Jonathan leaves for parts unknown to continue teaching, naming Fletcher as the new leader of the flight school they began together.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is, clearly, a powerful work in many ways. The language and style are pitch-perfect. I believe parable is a great teaching tool, and Bach executes the form masterfully. I have a great respect for writers who address our biggest questions with our simplest words. It is a big part of what I strive to do with my own writing. The humble language makes Jonathan Livingston Seagull a refreshing read, and allows the deeply magical events to infuse the story with life. Bach’s words do not get in the way of the wisdom which studs this story.

Bach’s parable has many moral lessons. The power of love is central to Jonathan Livingston Seagull. When Chiang leaves Jonathan’s new world, transforming into pure light before the flock, his final words are for Jonathan. He urges the younger bird to “keep working on love.” (60) In fact, it is Jonathan’s tireless love of flying which is the driving force in his life.

This love compelled Jonathan to continue learning about flight while his sensible side bade him forget his dreams. It forced him onto a solitary path on Earth, but allowed him to pursue his passion unhindered and let go of external conceptions about life’s purpose. Chiang imparted precious wisdom to Jonathan before disappearing, and it is Jonathan’s continued “work on love” which ultimately moves him to return to the people who wounded him so.

Practicing forgiveness like that displayed by Jonathan is also emphasized by the author. Fletcher must agree to forgive the Flock in order to learn to fly from Jonathan. Late in the book, the Flock tries to kill Jonathan, calling him a devil. Yet the very next day, Jonathan urges Fletcher, not only to see the good in each gull, but to help each gull see it within their own self.

A third reminder I found meaningful is how essential it is to release our belief in our own limits. Leaving our minds and hearts open leaves our minds and hearts open – to grow. Understanding our true nature’s perfection and limitlessness is Chiang’s basic lesson to Jonathan in time travel. Both Jonathan and Fletcher discuss this idea with their students, even while teaching them more mundane methods of moving around. Again and again in the book, the point is underscored, and deservedly so.

In my experience, it has been extremely important to my personal and spiritual growth to let go of limited ideas about myself, humanity, and the nature and purpose of earthly life. What is compassion but a rejection of the limits delineated by our own form, an assertion of one’s connectedness to the other? I have worked to bring down the walls within myself, and those lying between myself and others. It has served me exceptionally well. Certainly, we are solitary beings. At the same time, however, I see my destiny as inextricably intertwined with the destiny of others.

Here, the teaching work several characters engage in is of paramount importance. We as humans have worlds of untapped potential. We can end hunger or poverty today. I have often said, though, that you cannot make a Ferrari from Model T parts. We have to share our hard-won wisdoms to move our experience of life further. This is work that never ends.

Love has had its champions all throughout history, and for good reason. I have come to see – like I wrote in a song many years ago – that “love is the only true modern art.” The power of love to change our hearts, minds, and lives is utterly inexpressible. Discovering the inexhaustible supply of love within me has transformed the quality of life I enjoy. Aligning my awareness with this energy has helped me relate more authentically with my fellow man, and given me a joy I wish everyone could feel. Learning to love another person is a great course of study.

To me, living the lesson of forgiving is a practice. I have been blessed with a selective memory. I like to say, “I only remember the good things.” Like most statements, it is easier said than done. I have learned that I must make a constant effort to loose myself from the burdens of grudges and hatred. This practice of forgiveness can, to my mind, only work in concert with love.

I accept that we all walk through life with many wounds. It can be difficult to find the strength to be kind and patient given these wounds. It can be difficult simply to allow our wounds heal. Not only do we fail to seek healing, but we can also fall in love with our pain, nursing and feeding it rather than the strength and beauty within us.

However, we must forgive. We must forgive ourselves for all the moments where we fall short of our own ideals. We must forgive others for not sharing those ideals, and for firing whatever slings and arrows of outrageous fortune pierce our being. I have also learned to seek the forgiveness of my Creator. It is a blessing I earnestly desire, and one I request daily.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a true joy to read and experience. I recommend it highly to anyone who is sustained by a kind word. It is a reassuring and inspiring work, urging me to love more, forgive more, share more, and grow more. This story and I have become fast friends, and I am better for having read it. I intend to purchase copies as gifts for friends.

Works Cited


Bach, Richard. Jonathan Livingston Seagull. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970.





One thought on “Lessons in “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”

  1. Your reflections are amazing and I agree fully. I think love and forgiveness take a lot of practice but its worth all the struggle. Also in my opinion, we get closer to God by practicing love and compassion towards ourself and others.

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