Is it possible that if we learn to be patient, we might know more and perhaps even accept and trust one another in a contentious era? I have recently watched two movies that suggest this.
The first is the Academy Award-winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher.” In it, a man named Craig Foster, who is struggling in his own life, spends over a year snorkeling in Cape Town, South Africa. In a small section of the ocean, in freezing water without a wetsuit, he follows one octopus. The octopus looks like an alien, with rectangular eyes and a body unlike anything else on earth.
Craig found a creature that is intelligent and creative. Despite the massive distances between the two, over the course of a year they began to accept each other and even “hug.” At the Academy Awards, one of the directors, James Reed, said, “If a man can form a friendship with an octopus, it does make you wonder what else is possible.”
It seems impossible that anyone could earn the trust of such an enormously different creature. Watching this documentary made me rethink eating calamari, which is the Italian word for squid (from the Latin meaning “a writing pen”).
There was no shortcut. The easy thing would be to look at an octopus and assume it is weird, different, and ultimately just another form of food. But mental shortcuts like these too easily define us. The kind of patience it takes to truly learn about something, or someone, is in short supply these days.
The other movie I watched is “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” about a man who learned how to talk to children. These also are different creatures that many of us, even parents, barely understand. Mister Rogers, played in this case by Tom Hanks, continually frustrates his director by going off schedule when he is talking to a child.
Fred Rogers takes his time, purposefully and patiently, and as he slowly talks to kids, you can see an understanding develop that is followed, as with the octopus, by a relationship. In just one example, a child breathing through a tube eventually approaches Fred Rogers to hug him. I had earlier watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” a documentary about Rogers, which demonstrated the qualities that made this gentle human being so loved by the children he met, and, ultimately, by the adults who recognized his gift.
There is, of course, an opposite kind of behavior to what Fred and Craig have demonstrated: impatience and knee-jerk judgments. We see it everywhere. We use shortcuts to watch a favored news channel or listen to our political party or like-minded friends. It’s comforting to confirm our pre-existing biases by relying on people who appear to generally believe what we already believe.
In fact, we are all ignorant about most things in life, because there is simply too much information to fully process. But when we judge people way too quickly and with too little information, the consequences are disastrous.
I recently listened to a session in a professional science meeting about how things had gotten off track in the last presidential administration. Rather than talk about scientific issues, they spent an hour and a half talking about how they hated each and every person in the last administration. They seemed to feel reinforced, believing that it was a universal hatred.
As common as this behavior is—in government, social media, and in our communities—maybe something is changing. Both movies are highly rated, reflecting what may be a thirst for a kinder society.
First, it was a movie and a documentary about a kids’ show that won multiple awards, and then a Discovery Channel-like documentary wins the Academy Award. Could it be that people are tired of being misled by the premature and vicious opinions and truth-twisting that we are exposed to 24 hours a day?
I think people are seeking the kind of world that Craig Foster and Fred Rogers found. Both men intuitively accepted the idea that, with patience and understanding, we can get closer to what is true. It doesn’t mean we will always be more accepting, nor that we will accept narratives that run counter to our opinions, but it does mean there is still some hope out there.