My Octopus Teacher


Have you seen the Netflix documentary, “My Octopus Teacher?”  The underwater photography is outstanding. I would recommend watching just for that. The story takes place around the southern coast of Africa, very rough, cold waters, amazing kelp forests and so many fish and unusual creatures. It is a feast for the eyes.


The story is about a man’s struggle for meaning in his life after becoming burned out and feeling disconnected from most everything that was important to him. He had been a photo journalist and was physically and mentally exhausted. He was drawn back to his childhood home of South Africa and the surrounding waters to heal himself. At first he did not have a plan other than to swim every day. He did not know what he was looking for or what he needed, but the water was starting to help him feel alive again. Then he saw the octopus. Octopus are typically shy creatures, after all they are very vulnerable, with no real protection from predators except their ingenuity for hiding and the ink they spray to try to shield themselves.  It was at the time of their first encounter that he decided to return to the same place every day to learn more about (and from) the octopus. He did seem to build a trust relationship with the octopus, and whether you believe that is possible or not, there were some meaningful take-aways from this story.

What does it take to build trust? In this case, it was patience and consistency. Always showing up, day after day and waiting for the octopus to become curious rather than pursuing it. At the same time, he was also learning about his own ability to remain curious and to let a relationship evolve.

 In relationships with people, building trust also takes patience and consistency. Showing by example that you will be there, that you will not cause harm, you will not judge. In my work experience, as I am sure in your experience, you learn which coworkers might be friendly to your face, and then turn around and take credit for work you’ve done, or undermine you in other ways. And you learn there are the coworkers who build you up, who are quick to praise you in public. You learn who you can trust by their actions and their words.

The world of nature, of which we are a part, can be a beautiful world and an unforgiving world. I don’t want to give away the ending of the movie, but as in life, everything has a season.  As the lyrics of the Byrd’s song go (and Ecclesiastes 3:1)

For everything there is a season

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

I have worked with and known students who have had to deal with circumstances in their lives that would bring many of us to our knees. Their sense of safety has been shaken by people around them that should have been providing care and safety for them. These students need someone to see them. They may not always appear to be easily loveable. They are afraid to be vulnerable. Most of the time, underneath their protective exterior, you will find a gem. If you just listen, without judgment. You may be the teacher or mentor or friend, but you will learn about love and vulnerability and acceptance if you take the time to listen. Take the time to be there for the season and you can both learn from each other.

I think one of the most important lessons in this film is that at some level we are all part of each other, we are all part of the environment and we are all part of the planet. There is a rhythm to life that we are all a part of. I look back over my adult life, during the time I was raising my children, and working in corporate training, I was a teacher. I had lessons to teach. I also had lessons to learn and I still have lessons to learn. Hum the refrain again:

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

What is it your time to teach, and your time to learn?

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