A short while ago I posted this quote from Richard Bach’s, The Bridge Across Forever, on a social media site. One of my friends, whose opinion I value, took issue; referring to it as “seagull guano philosophy” and challenged me to write an essay to consider the meaning of the quote. Her belief was that under scrutiny the philosophy behind the quote would not hold up. I’ve never viewed myself as a particularly deep thinker, but I am intrigued by the challenge.
So here I am with a task, and a problem, whether to take the affirmative or the contrarian approach to discuss the issue?
To understand the quote we must of course consider the source. An American author, pilot and perhaps philosopher, Richard Bach writes of his love of flight in metaphysical terms, imparting meanings to joys found in the freedom of the sky, or pursuit of a passion. Although most well known for his book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the story of an outcast seagull who learns of higher levels of awareness, achieved through the dedication to excellence and teaching, this quote comes from one of the two books he wrote describing his love affair with his second wife, Leslie Parrish. In the course of his writings he has developed a following of those who read much into his monologues in the form of a life’s philosophy. Those “new age” souls who discard the teachings of the past only to grasp at any writing that sounds metaphysical to find meaning in life.
According to Wikipedia, The Bridge Across Forever, focused on Bach and Parrish’s relationship and his concept of soul mates. It is a romantic notion that there are souls, separated by God, or the gods, and who must wander the earth seeking their other half. The thought goes back to Plato, and emerges in modern “new age” thinking repeatedly. The belief that God created androgynous souls, equally male and female, that were separated by God and condemned to search for their mate through eternity is, in my opinion, fundamentally flawed. Edgar Cayce, viewed by many as a founding spiritualist for the new age movement, created a modern variation of this, and I have the same issue with his views of the universe.
Clearly, Mr. Bach ascribes to the basic principles of Theosophy seeking to understand the hidden mysteries leading to enlightenment or salvation. His writings revolve around taking the common and imbuing them with spiritual meaning. So now, how about the quote?
On the surface I would give a C in originality as the quote, in its essence, is not original to him. Mark Twain once wrote “There are no mistakes in life, there are only lessons to be learned.” It seems unlikely an author of his experience would not have read Twain.
In this quote, there is an underlying premise that what has gone before was essential to bringing us to where we’ve chosen to go. If you put yourself in the mind of any military pilot, whether or not they are some great metaphysical thinker, you will find a foundation to their thinking that is based on their earliest flight training, observe, orient, decide, and act. For a pilot to control their craft (and fate) he or she must be thinking for the machine. The pilot must understand where they’ve been, but more importantly they must anticipate where they will be in time and space, well before they arrive. We learn to make our decisions based on the best information available, and be prepared to alter that decision should the facts of the situation change.
But does it also require a basic assumption; we as individuals are in complete control of the circumstances of our lives? We are detached from the decisions of others, and that the decisions we make, while made with at least partial understanding of the others that interact with us, are made independently. Perhaps it does. Every pilot I’ve ever dealt with believes he is in complete control of the aircraft, and far too often this belief carries over to the other, more personal aspects of his life, if he has his hands on the controls he is in charge and is able to determine the outcome.
What about the concept of a mistake? If we are sentient human beings with free will, and the ability to control our lives then can we not choose how we view those decisions? Doesn’t it come down to how we view the results? If we make a choice, and it turns out we don’t like the consequence, can’t we rationalize on the one hand we’ve made a mistake, or on the other hand it was just a choice to be made and in hindsight perhaps not the best one? Or, is it imperative we acknowledge our mistake, we failed in that choice and must admit it was wrong before we can move on? I think how that question is answered is foundational in how you view the world, your place in it, and how critical to you are the opinions of others.
So we come back to the question, is this quote “seagull guano philosophy?” I think to answer this honestly requires you to understand your own belief set, what is the foundation for it and how the meanings of the quote align.
The Christian faith, for the most part, reflects God as caring and benevolent, asking us to admit our sins and accept Jesus as the redeemer for them. As far as God’s direct involvement in the daily shaping of our lives, the scriptures appear to be a little thin on the details of how that is addressed. Scripture tells us faith in God will restore us and give comfort. For example in Psalms 23, David writes, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures: he leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul: he leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake…”
In Matthew 17 there is this story that speaks to what is possible through faith. “When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ Jesus answered, ‘you faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him and the boy was cured instantly. The disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
As a Christian, I accept the words of the scripture, as divinely inspired to set the moral compass for a society where we strive to be better than we were yesterday, and when we fail in those efforts we can turn to God and can be assured of his forgiveness. We place our faith in God that it is his will we flourish as a people, but it leaves a lot of room for individual interpretations. In my life I’ve gone through a lot of trials, my faith has grown through them, but also I’ve come to believe that I am the master of my future, while I can not redeem my soul for original sin, neither can I blame God for my bad choices, I must accept that God in his infinite forgiveness will accept me for who I am. I seek God’s guidance but in the end it is for me to plan my course and to accept the choices I’ve made, correcting that course when necessary.
As I read the quote I see Richard Bach attempting to rationalize the choices he and his lover have made along the way to explain that those choices were okay “or necessary” for them to arrive at the points in their lives where they were. I don’t see it as the underlying basis for a new philosophy nor do I see this as a conflict with the beliefs that I hold. While others may view it differently it is in the end just a simple quote by a fallible human searching to explain some instant in his life.