Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, is recovering in hospital from a serious head injury after his small amphibian plane he affectionately calls Puff, crashed when its landing gear clipped wires while attempting to land on a grass runway at San Juan Island on August 31.
For some months this year, Richard has delighted many with tales of his growing relationship and travels with Puff while flying from Florida to Washington State. I now pause and reflect at this sudden turn of events to send thanks to a person whom I have never met. I thank him for presenting his ideas about life and love in such novel ways in many of his books that they profoundly changed my thinking, and subsequently my life, for the better.
And all this began when a friend lent me Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull to read. I was twenty-five, and completing my last year at teachers’ college in the seventies.
The story seemed so simple, yet totally profound. A seagull struggling to perfect his flying techniques had a breakthrough. But the speed flying he had perfected, how to save energy flying at low altitudes, and much more, was completely lost on the flock who viewed his discoveries through the eyes of ignorance and fear. He was made outcast and spent his days in solitary flight near the far cliffs, practicing and honing his skills.
The day a brilliant white gull flew at his side, Jonathan was transported to a different dimension, where he learned more about flight than he ever could have imagined. He also learned about love, which is perhaps why he felt in his heart that he needed to return to the flock one day and share with them what he had learned.
He found Fletcher Lynd Gull flying alone near the far cliffs as he had done, angry over having just been made outcast for wanting to show the flock a new way of flying. Fletch was stunned when Jonathan appeared at his wingtip, a brilliant white bird able to stay with him in perfect formation while he showed off his new flight techniques. Jonathan spoke to him:
“Fletcher Lynd Seagull, do you want to fly?”
“YES, I WANT TO FLY!”
“Fletcher Lynd Seagull, do you want to fly so much that you will forgive the Flock, and learn, and go back to them one day and work to help them know?”
There was no lying to this magnificent skillful being, no matter how proud or hurt a bird was Fletcher Seagull.
“I do,” he said softly.
“Then, Fletch,” that bright creature said to him, and the voice was very kind, “Let’s begin with level flight…”
I clearly remember the pain in my heart and the tears that rolled down my cheeks at these words, baffled by such a strong reaction. Instinctively I knew that I had something to learn, and to share with people. But what? Was it also about forgiveness?
Oh, I had lots of forgiving to do. Like Fletcher Seagull I was angry and bitter. It was like life had given me a bitter lemon to suck for all eternity…and worse. The most glaring thing in my life was that I had not recovered from my parents’ divorce, my mother disappearing out of my life forever when I was just thirteen, and the wicked witch of a stepmother who took her place whom I simply hated.
But reading these lines in a book caused something to stir within me. Could I learn to fly, at least in spirit, and be free of the embittering things that pinned me helplessly to the ground in fear?
A week or so later, during a creative drama class, the lecturer asked us to lie on the floor and, while listening to music, allow images to enter our minds. Instantly I saw ladders hanging from the sky and rushed to climb one, desperately wanting to reach through the clouds to what was hidden beyond. When the music played through a second time, we were to act out the images we saw. But instead of climbing a ladder, I spontaneously reached out my hands to students near me. I was surprised when they took my hands and reached out to others until we had formed a circle and moved to the music as one. I could feel a profound feeling of connectedness within the room, something I could only describe as love. My lecturer didn’t mask his surprise when he said, “I didn’t know you had that in you.”
That day something shifted deep within me. What I didn’t know then was that it marked the beginning of a journey of spiritual healing that would show me we are all connected as one, and that it was my inability to forgive and feel compassion that created separation and pain and loss in my life.
Many years later, in 1989, I was invited to see an artist’s paintings at his apartment. I must confess that I took a risk doing this as he had been recently released from a three-month stay at a mental hospital, and I had only just met him at the gallery where I worked. But his obvious intelligence aroused my curiosity. In fact, in the short time I had come to know him, I regarded him as the most intelligent man I had ever met. I also knew that he was very bitter about how his parents had treated him.
After he brought out painting after abstract painting for me to pass comment on, he finally showed me a large painting of a seagull flying against a backdrop of cloud. He said he was inspired to paint it after reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The book was sitting nearby on a lamp table and he reached over and handed it to me. Smiling to myself, I opened it at random and read the first words my gaze met: “Fletcher Lynd Seagull, do you want to fly?” I looked at Jack. “Do you want to fly?’ I asked quietly.
“Of course,” he almost snapped at me.
“But do you believe you can fly?”
There was a moment of silence before he spoke, his voice tinged with resignation. “I have too many limitations – my mental illness for one. You don’t know what it’s like to suddenly go the way I did and end up in hospital. How can I possibly learn to fly when I have such a crippled wing?”
I had a sudden insight that a crippled wing was not his problem and blurted out that he was carrying around so much dead weight in negative emotional garbage, that he was too heavy to leave the ground.
“Well then, at least I can’t fall…or crash,” he retorted.
“But I see you lost on the ground,” I said, “going around and around in frustrated circles and getting nowhere.” When I added that he was danger of tripping over his tired feet and crashing face first onto hard ground, a startled look appeared in his eyes and a shadow of fear crept over his face.
“You’re right,” he said, “I did crash. Alcoholism, drugs…now this illness. I feel terrible…terrible. I need pills to make me sleep, pills to stop the depressive attacks… Sometimes I despair of ever making it.”
Jack became one of my greatest teachers about love, about compassion, about empathy and caring because he showed me devastatingly clearly what would happen if I did not love myself enough to learn to fly on the wings of love, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and caring. That Jack never learned to fly, and chose instead to believe that he was Maynard Gull with the crippled wing, fills me with deep sadness to this day.
But his plight spurred me on to try to understand exactly what the mental illness was that ruined his life. I discovered that it was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from childhood abuse. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can mimic mental health problems such as bi-polar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and depression. It can also lead people into substance abuse and addiction when attempting to self-medicate the anxiety. There is no cure for PTSD caused by child abuse. However the symptoms can be managed by learning to love oneself, and by acts of kindness and forgiveness towards others.
Trying to understand how such an intelligent person could end up wasting away and dying at a young age without being able to get his life together, left an indelible impression on my mind. It caused me to ask many questions and finally led me to research and write about the ripple effect of child abuse, deeply concerned about the many ways children suffer, and what we can do to improve their lives so that they can learn to ‘fly’ from an early age. And as I write, I continue to think about Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and the message he returned to give.
Again and again I find that the simple truth is this: Love is the wind beneath every child’s wings. And it leads to happiness and well-being and the achievement of their potential. It is the deposit in their bank account called life from which they can draw when needed, or add to from good feelings of their own ability to extend this love to others. I also learned that living like this can create vast inner wealth.
I thank Richard Bach from my heart for writing a story so compelling and heartfelt that it sent me on this most amazing journey of discovery, spurred on by words in Illusions, another book he wrote:
“There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you on its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.”
And I found many, many priceless gifts along the way.