I fell in love with the octopus at a very early age thanks to a book I no longer have. I have looked to find a copy of the book since with no luck—the one I purchased was similar but not the one I remember. I believe the title of the book was simply Octopus, and it had realistic art and described, without being cutesy, a day in the life of an octopus. She hunted for food. She squirted ink to get away from a predator. And finally, she laid eggs in her den and cared for them. The last pictures in the book were of the tiny baby octopuses floating away, and I believe the text said something like “tiny colored clowns” to describe them, though it is a very old memory.
Last night I watched the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher, about Craig Foster’s experience visiting the same octopus every day for the better part of a year. I would have loved it even if this animal didn’t already have a very special place in my heart, because it is about empathy with and an attempt to understand something not like us at all. The subject interests me greatly–it is a common theme in my writing and artistic work and in how I wish to live my life. Much of what I want to say here is about my own relationship with the octopus, but I will discuss why I think this documentary is so important for all of us to watch, and how we should aspire to live as beings who can practice radical empathy even with those very different from ourselves.
I was not yet two years old, and much of what I remember is probably from my parents reading it to me, but I did learn to read early and surely used this book to pick up some words because I loved it so much. I also reread it when I was a little older, which is where some of the memories surely come from. But I know I fell in love with the octopus before I was two years old, because I had asked for an octopus for Christmas that year before I turned two in January, based on reading the book. My grandparents found a pink stuffed octopus, but it only had six tentacles, so my parents made a stuffed octopus for me. Years later they talked about how they had sat up stuffing the tentacles with old pantyhose after I had gone to bed. I still have “Brownie.”
I don’t know why I picked the octopus or why that book, among the many I was fortunate to have, made such a huge impression on me as a toddler who had never been to an ocean or aquarium. I had other favorite animals—we frequented the Frankfurt Zoo and I am told I loved the okapi in particular.
My love of the octopus continued as I reached adulthood and got to see some in aquariums. I am fascinated by how strange they are, how beautifully they move, their unique abilities to change shape and color. When I see one in an aquarium, I want to stand there and watch it for a while, even if it is doing nothing at all, and I always love seeing video of octopuses. I loved to watch Jacques Cousteau on TV as a child and I imagine must have seen some octopuses on his program too, though I don’t have a specific memory.
Now, as a middle-aged adult, I love the octopus because it is just about as different from a human being as you can possibly get and exist on the same planet. I long to understand how they think. I am fascinated with the idea of distributed intelligence and how their neural network extends into their tentacles. The science fiction writer in me wonders, if the octopus was able to evolve into something that lived as long as humans, what would they be like? What civilizations might they create?
I’ve read some books on the octopus. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery was a good read. I feel the author was a little too starry-eyed, overly anthropomorphized the animals with whom she interacted, and made some bad decisions based on her own emotions. But I can’t fault her—if I were in the presence of an octopus I might be very much the same. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith is a fascinating book that takes a more scientific examination of the peculiar type of intelligence of the octopus.
But the documentary My Octopus Teacher is one of the best things I’ve seen relating to this fascinating creature—it combines an emotional attachment by a human (really, an obsession, in his own words) with an enormous respect for the creature and its unique way of being in the world. It tells us as much about human beings as about the octopus. It’s a one-sided story– we have no idea what the octopus is thinking. The octopus is a profoundly antisocial animal who is not alive to interact with the next generation. But it is also an extremely curious creature, and in its short life, is able to learn much about the world and how to survive in it. What did the octopus get out of the encounter, and how much of this could possibly be transmitted genetically to the next generation? The question is impossible to answer, but asking it is important, because part of the practice of empathy is to attempt to understand, even knowing you can never really live in someone else’s mind.
Like Craig Foster, we have enormous capacity to empathize with and understand those who are completely unlike us, but it takes commitment and practice. We need radical empathy right now. A lack of ability to empathize with those not like us is literally getting people killed. Something as simple as skin color can make the difference between leaving an interaction with the police alive or dead. Our ability to empathize and our perceived need to keep ourselves safe are in conflict. Our obsession with keeping ourselves safe has gotten so bad—fellow white folks, I’m looking at us—that we may assume that someone who doesn’t look like us might be dangerous so better not have them in our neighborhood. Some of us are listening to politicians who cynically manipulate this fear in order to divide us. But if a human being can learn to love an octopus, what is stopping us from loving each other?
Craig Foster met the octopus when he turned to the natural world below the ocean for healing after a difficult period in his life. As he learned through his experience with the octopus, when we practice radical empathy, we also heal ourselves.