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Book Review: Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Sharing insights from my reading list and finding the health in the written word.

Growing up, my library spanned a wide variety of genres, due in large part to my placement in a family much younger than my siblings and with parents nearly an entire generation older than typical. I remember writing a book report on Black Like Me in 8thGrade and spending time with The Screwtape Lettersin late elementary years. One of my favorite books that I would visit year after year was Jonathan Livingston Seagull– I close my eyes and picture it – small, thin, black cover, simple white seagull outline, the yellow font of the title and the white, all-caps crediting the author for his work. Perhaps because of its brevity more than anything, it was my go-to for a quick visit and moment of contemplation. It has admittedly been years – probably at least a decade – since my last read through but in recent weeks, I felt the deep urge to find and read this book again.

Knowing that the original already existed in my collection – likely still at my childhood home – I first sought a copy at the library but none was in stock. Initial book store attempt was fruitless, but the second led me to a new edition – unfamiliar sky-blue color and verbiage describing inclusion of Part Four. Intrigued, I made the purchase and proceeded to rekindle our literary relationship. Sitting on the sidelines of my son’s soccer game, overlooking the mountainside and hoping to avoid the rain, I opened the broadened cover and knew immediately why I had to read this book and why now was the moment.

I’d claim a spoiler alert, but the gift of this book is that you can read it countless times and find new meaning, so the reveal of the details and the new ending that I share here is an interpretation, it is my experience and does not change what yours can be.

Jonathan Livingston is a gull in the flock seeking to explore possibilities in flight. He spends his days flying higher, diving faster, practicing spins, rolls and maneuvers unprecedented among his peers. He simply is not satisfied with the limitations of every day seagull life as it was currently being lived - and the flock is not ready for his challenges to their status quo – rendering him an isolated soul, trading community for quest of greatest potential.

As he gains insight and mastery of the skill he seeks and the freedom of recognizing the boundless opportunity held within, he reaches a land of enlightenment – with a smaller cohort of birds much more in sync with the concepts he has known to be true even before he physically realized them to be so. With master teachers and the nurturing collective of like-minded gulls, he continues to evolve. This ultimately leads him back to the original flock as he is affirmed that these abilities are not unique to him, but possible in anyone. He is ready to lead by example, to teach with grace and offer gentle invitation for any who seek to learn.

Upon reentry, he finds a reflection of his original self – Fletcher is a gull sent away from the flock, testing his limits and frustrated by those of his peers, who are unable to see the possibility for more. Fletcher and Jonathan work together and, over time, inspire a cohort to participate. They realize that the awe-inspiring feats of flight are not other-worldly, but are the result of practice, patience and perspective – recognizing the power within, staying true to the purpose of greatest self and achieving through countless hours of dedicated, often grueling rehearsals. Mastery is for anyone but not for everyone – it cannot be rushed and is the reward for those willing to hold vision andinvest vast amounts of time and energy to bring forth their greatest potential.

In the original version, the tale ends on a relatively positive note, with flock members testing their wings and Jonathan moving on from the physical realm, passing the leadership baton to Fletcher. And here the re-reading experience got quite interesting – Part Four – the after. Initially a time of great bounty – exploring the concepts, practicing, spreading the message. As the time expands between direct contact with Jonathan, however, so grows the idolization and variety of interpretations of his teachings. Distortion is created, as is common when the depth of lens is increased by the layering of multiple personal elucidations.

In just a few brief generations, the simple, though profound, core principles Jonathan held sacred were lost – the concepts of flight made so fantastic through retellings that they were no longer attempted. The quest for specifics and details in guidance smothered the individual creativity required for true success. Jonathan experienced exclusion and reverence for challenging the norm and both extremes limited the realization of the flock. Somehow, in perhaps his most significant demonstration of optimal potential, Jonathan retained a love for the good of the whole throughout.

Eventually, after the passing of Fletcher, an innocent few began again to simply ask for themselves about the potential for more, flying higher, diving faster, practicing spins, rolls and maneuvers unprecedented among their peers. In the span of 200 years, a blink in the history of the universe, theories of greatness were explored, shunned, embraced, lauded, misinterpreted, forgotten and discovered again as new in the questions of another generation.

What a gift that this book, complete with the ending written at inception but only included some 40 years after initial publication, presented itself again at this moment in my life. It was never quite clear in my youth how I would integrate the experience of this book and I see now that it was the fourth part for which I was waiting and to which I was called in these weeks.

As I set forth, or better, continue, on the mission of pursuing the best health of all things, I am encouraged that now is indeed the time to ask again what osteopathy means, can mean, did mean, will mean for the future of the profession but more importantly the best practice of medicine and of life. That principles are light houses, guiding us to shore but leaving room for different paths in a sea of fluidity. They need not limit our journey, but instead give us the freedom to know we can find our own way safely with a reference point when needed.

Boundless capacity for greatness exists within us all – limited only by our perception and endangered by the comparisons we make to those who might be ahead of us on the journey. Can we release the shackles of fear and shun the stifling expectations of perfection, recognizing the simple yet profound gift of infinite opportunity within? Will we look beyond the flock and the status quo and seek more for ourselves and for the collective? Will we squawk or will we soar?

May we answer the call to gently embrace the inspiration of others, to take up the challenge to practice, honoring our capacity for greatness, the marvelous wholeness of body, mind and spirit held within us all and soar ever higher, for the best health of all things.

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