One of Laurens van der Post’s most famous Bushmen stories is about the Great White Bird.
One day a young hunter stops to drink from a stream. In the water he sees the reflection of a Great White Bird. He leaps to his feet, but it has already disappeared. So he travels on and on, determined to catch up with the bird, asking everyone he meets whether they have seen it.
He keeps travelling, leaving behind his home and family and all that is most dear to him. Weeks, months, years pass. From time to time he meets someone who says they have seen the bird, but always he is too late to catch it.
And so he travels across the whole of Africa, never giving up, until he arrives, tired and old, at the foot of the highest mountain in Africa. The people who live there tell him that the Great White Bird lives at the very top of the mountain, beyond the snow line.
Then he knows that he is near his journey’s end. If only he can get to the top of the mountain he will at last see it. He starts to climb. The path becomes steeper and steeper; but he keeps on until, just below the snow line, he stumbles and falls. Realising he can go no further, he cries out, ‘Oh, Mother, I have failed!’
Then, as he lies there, he hears a voice saying, ‘Look up!’ And in the red evening sky he sees a single white feather floating down towards him. Reaching up, he catches it in his hand – and dies content.
To follow the Great White Bird of our dreams is the most demanding task life can offer – and the most rewarding. Jung called this the process of individuation, ‘by which every living thing becomes what it was destined to become from the very beginning’. Joseph Campbell talked of learning ‘to follow your bliss’. And Mary Oliver, in her powerful poem, The Journey, describes the emergence of something
which you slowly recognise as your own,
That kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.