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Six lessons we can learn from My Octopus Teacher

For weeks friends have been urging me to watch My Octopus Teacher. “It’ll change your life,” they would say, coming over all misty-eyed as they explained the central plot of the Netflix documentary about a South African dude who falls in love with an octopus.It seemed preposterous. What could a mollusc teach a man —…

For weeks friends have been urging me to watch My Octopus Teacher.

“It’ll change your life,” they would say, coming over all misty-eyed as they explained the central plot of the Netflix documentary about a South African dude who falls in love with an octopus.

It seemed preposterous. What could a mollusc teach a man — or any of us — about life?

From what I knew about octopuses — three hearts, eight arms, can take the lid off a pill bottle — they’re clever enough but not exactly meerkat cute. Certainly not a species that would engender amorous intentions.

But this week I sat down with my daughters and a plate of calamari (bad taste?) and caught up on the hit show. And, honestly, the second it finished I wanted to watch it all over again.

Whether it’s the brittleness of the year we’re enduring or the purity of this thalassic love story, I haven’t been as moved since the spider in Charlotte’s Web befriended Wilbur the pig.

Indeed, watching My Octopus Teacher I was reminded of something that other eight-legged creature said to her unlikely chum: “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.”

The fact is, filmmaker Craig Foster doesn’t so much fall in love with the octopus as learn from her. And while the deeply profound story documents the healing and redemption he experiences through his year-long bond with the octopus he never names, it also has lessons for us all.

Here’s what I’ve taken from this extraordinary story.

Rhythms carry us when happiness can’t

Foster ventures into the ice-cold kelp forests near his African home after suffering some personal challenges, including burnout and adrenal fatigue.

He decided to free dive daily and it’s on one of those expeditions he spots the octopus he will go on to interact with for the next year.

Sometimes simply living life deliberately and to some sort of structure, whether it’s coffee in the same cup or a daily meander through the vegetable garden, can hold us when other trusted frameworks fall away.

Anything which is meaningful takes time

In a world which lives at breakneck speed, My Octopus Teacher is a lyrical reminder that we can’t force outcomes.

Foster has to float near the octopus over a period of months before she accepts he is not a threat.

When she tentatively unfolds one of her arms onto his hand, latching on with her suckers, it’s a touching reminder that so much that matters is earned quietly rather than instantly bestowed.

Vulnerability both reveals and connects us

Foster is emotionally and physically stripped bare when he enters the ocean. It’s as if he wants to let life rush in: the cold, the danger, the otherness of a world below our sight line.

In choosing not to wear a wetsuit or scuba equipment he leaves himself exposed in much the way the octopus is constantly preyed upon by sharks.

While he learns to hold his breath for a staggering six minutes, his need for air is a reminder that we can’t always arm ourselves against the world; that our fragility is precious too.

Wonderment is a luxury gift available to all of us

As the festive season approaches I can’t bear the compunction to buy stuff. Instead I want to take my girls camping, to build a fire, sleep close to the earth and feel the freedom of days without clocks.

Whatever you call it — awe, curiosity, noticing — immersion in nature affords us an opportunity to properly see.

As long as two centuries ago the naturalist Henry Thoreau was urging us to live in the present, “to find your eternity in each moment”.

Foster’s gentle film has struck a chord because of his obvious reverence for what he called “the pure magnificence of her”.

Not everything lasts

So often in the pursuit of a long life, we neglect to create a good life. We strive and plan and hypothesise about the future when the only thing guaranteed is the day we wake into.

Octopuses are semelparous animals which means the females die after their offspring hatch, often after a short, year-long life.

How might we better live if our own lives were so short and ephemeral? Calculate the weekends you have left if you live to an average life expectancy. You’ll be encouraged to make them count.

Love can be experienced in multiple forms

In movies, books and songs we promote romantic love as an ideal and disregard the nourishment which can come from other sources.

Foster is made whole again through his love for the natural world and his relationship with his son Tom flourishes when father invites son into his underwater world.

Sometimes the most important thing we can give another, whether it’s a chest for an octopus to lie on or a quiet adventure with a child,
is our proximity.

angelamollard@gmail.com; twitter.com/angelamollard

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