Growing Community: Octopus 101

This column doesn’t generally offer film reviews, but if you are searching for something to watch while we are all stuck indoors, you can do no better than the documentary ‘My Octopus Teacher’ on Netflix. Best of all, this is a film that anyone can enjoy, even elementary-age children (Common Sense Media says 8 and up).

Without spoiling the story of this remarkable nature documentary, we recommend it here as a parable for how we and our children can cope with the awful, often-overwhelming uncertainty of our times. It’s a story of how the power of connection can heal us, about the essential resilience that is wired into us all as animals on this earth and, yes, about the fragility of our existences.

We hardly need to remind ourselves of the lack of certainty in life right now; 2020 has been a challenge for everyone in every country in the world. We’re all trying to cope with our anxieties and worries — illness, bereavement, job loss, politics and myriad other things that keep us up at night — all now amplified, overlaid and compounded by COVID-19.

And this was not really supposed to be a COVID column. But please, please, please let’s remind ourselves and our kids — particularly our teenage and young adult children — that we actually can do a lot to stop the spread and protect others from a potentially very dangerous illness by wearing masks and making the sacrifice to stay away from others. Please. That’s really all it will take to keep businesses and schools open and some semblance of the normality we all desperately crave.

Back to our Octopus. One of the many lessons we took from that beautiful and resourceful Octopus Teacher is that nothing in life is certain, so we’d better grab on to that concept, focus on survival and power through. It is probably only our privilege as 21st century humans — with lives full of technology, medicines, information and (comparative) wealth — that gives us a sense that we can shield ourselves from things that happen to other people. We all feel that there always is a solution or a workaround (or a vaccine), and we want it now.  If that solution doesn’t show up immediately, we can’t cope. It’s as if modern life has given us a false sense that we are actually in total control, which weakens the essential, wired-in resilience all organisms have.

The fact is, there is no certainty in life, and that’s why COVID has been the great leveller. In previous centuries, most people did not have our certainties. Women commonly died in childbirth and disease affected all, regardless of social status. The reliable technology didn’t exist to solve such problems — and people didn’t have an expectation that all problems could be solved. Yet they persisted and coped. Which is probably why the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities, those without the means to fix every situation, are often, perhaps paradoxically, the most resilient. They, like that amazing Octopus, know that they have no choice but to adapt to what life throws at them, to power through and survive.

So, when we look for how to help our children cope with uncertainty, let’s try to remember a few things. As members of the human race, we were built for survival and are very well placed to deal with anything life presents to us. We have resources close to home and also have the sophisticated ability to understand time and perspective — that no matter how bad things seem for us right now, ‘this too shall pass’ and things won’t feel or be this way forever.

By loosening our grip on the need for certainty, we open our minds up to the potential benefits of change and also preserve resilience and our ability to adapt. This is our superpower as human beings and something for us to remember when everything seems hopeless. Perhaps the best lesson that the Octopus teaches us is that while life is fragile, it is truly beautiful, and also that it will — as long as we take care of each other and our planet — go on.

Growing Community, by Shirley Ritter, the director of Kids First, and Katherine Sand, the director of Aspen Family Connections, runs every other Wednesday in the Aspen Daily News. It features topics of interest related to early childhood, parenting and education. To reach the authors, email Shirley at or Katherine at

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