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 uncomfort- able (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, begrudingly, then peacefully and gratefully, I chose.

 The first book was Jonathan “Livingston Seagull,” published in 1970, 

though 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 and a place and a culture.

 It’s about a seagull named Jona-

than. 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 ordi- nary 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 has learned. Jonathan the avatar.

Then, in graduate school, a teacher introduces me to the writings of James Kavanaugh. Two years after Bach’s meteoric bestseller, 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 poten- tial 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 be- gan 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 limita- tions 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.

(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at skalas@ is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)