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Sharks Amongst Us: Lessons from the Octopus Teacher

There is a documentary on Netflix which has stolen my heart, and maybe yours too. It’s called My Octopus Teacher and it is set in a kelp forest beneath the waves on the tip of Southern Africa. You can watch this show for the beauty of the seascape, for insights into the creativity and intelligence of a non-human being or to experience vicariously the nurturing effects of being in nature.

What I love about it though is that it demonstrates the power of curiosity.

The story is of a man in need of re-centering who encounters a beautiful octopus doing a strange thing – using shells to hide itself. His interest sparked he resolves to visit daily to learn more. As the octopus gets used to him, she too exhibits curiosity. In a rather poignant moment, she bridges the gap between them, stretching out a sucker-laden tentacle to explore his hand and arm. It might thrill you, like it does me, to know that two-thirds of the neurons that fire an octopus are in its arms – so in some sense anyway she is reaching out with her mind.

There is a narrative here about a burgeoning relationship – a shared space, a sense of connection. It is necessary for our wellbeing to connect with other people, and to feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves. But there is something profoundly beautiful and important in seeing that we are able to connect with other conscious beings through acts of curiosity and presence.

Of course, into this scene swims a pyjama shark or two. Predatory, milky-eyed and driven by the instinct for food, they are accompanied by the appropriate sound effects that leave no uncertainty as to their role in the show. You’ll have to watch it to find out how it ends.

It is easy to fall into the trap of labelling sharks bad and octopi good. However, the magic of this story is not in gross categorisations but on the capacity for connection between two sentient beings. Another human could have happily hunted the octopus, perhaps serving it up on a bed of rocket with a red wine vinaigrette. Perhaps another octopus might have ignored the man, hiding away whenever he was in the neighbourhood. There was some level of choice involved in connecting – the man chose to stay, and so did the octopus – and that is a lesson in and of itself.

But there are other lessons here for us.

The most obvious one of course is that we are not the only evolution of intelligence on earth. We are, however, the only ones who have the capability to deliberately shape environments for better or worse. And not just for us, but for life in general. Many intelligent creatures are set to be wiped out by the cumulative actions of humans – whether poaching, climate change, plastic pollution or the never-ending sprawl of human habitation. Elephants, rhinos, bees, orangutans… wiped out forever, on our watch, because we weren’t really paying attention. We weren’t really watching. Too many of us were, and perhaps still are, obsessed with ourselves, wrapped up in the belief that the entire universe revolves around us.

I’ve always believed that the capacity for curiosity and compassion is an inherent human capability. But I think I’m wrong. The sharks in this story strike me as a particularly appropriate metaphor. That this shark, a pyjama shark, is presented as blind is perhaps poetic. In our story the shark itself has no capacity to make different choices. The shark is not lacking in intelligence, but its intelligence is cold and competitive. Single-minded and instinctual. Blind. The intelligence of the octopus is different. It is based on curiosity – on looking out at the world and discovering. And it is that ability, that curiosity, that drives connection, and ultimately flourishing.

The shark and the octopus exhibit different types of intelligence but both live within the human mind. Perhaps the most striking lesson I got from watching My Octopus Teacher is that sharks swim amongst us. Depressingly, we live in a world of nationalists, racists, misogynists, religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists, environmental vandals and profiteering corporations. Whilst we can educate and inform, reach across the divide and demonstrate what love looks like in the hope that change is possible (and there is no doubt that these actions do produce change), there seem to be some people who, like the sharks, are unable to choose differently. They are driven by their own instincts for domination and control, by their tribal allegiances, self interest and a winner takes all mentality.

And the unfortunate truth is, like the octopus, we have to be on the lookout for those humans who would do us harm for their own gain and we have to take action to limit their influence. It is why the separation of church and state, a free press and a corruption watchdog are essential, and why environmental laws and laws governing technology use and truth in advertising need to be strengthened. It is why the push to allow people to discriminate against others on the basis of their religion is so unutterable appalling.

We need to be vigilant if we are to protect things that are good about human endeavour - kindness, curiosity, equality, truth and the ability to create win-win outcomes – from that which is less so.

Sharlene Zeederberg 9-Oct-2020

Photo by Jeahn Laffitte on Unsplash

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