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Taking up arms

Jude Simpson

Jude SimpsonFor the thinking Christian poet, the approach of a new year brings on a concerted hunt for the perfect metaphor. Something that speaks deeply of the human condition and our potential for improvement.

Enter the escapologist octopus.

I discovered at a recent aquarium visit (every year should have one) that preventing one's octopus escaping is the bane of every aquarium-keeper's life.

Octopuses are highly intelligent, with an ability to learn and exceptional problem-solving skills. They have a lust for the ocean that neither fades, nor bows to the inevitability of a sealed tank. Add to this the dexterity and flexibility offered by having (a) eight arms and (b) no bones, and you can see what slippery customers they must be.

Octopuses can squeeze through tiny holes, unscrew lids and prise open the thinnest of cracks. And of course, they leave no footprints ... not only is the octopus a freedom fighter, he's also very well-armed (ker-ching!). Sorry about that, but when it comes to tentacles, I'm a bit of a sucker (creak!).

The octopus's problem is that although intelligent enough to escape, he does not realise that if he does so, he will die. Even while congratulating himself on figuring out how to pull the plug, he is on the way down it. Imagine his thoughts. 'I planned it so well! I executed it so perfectly! Darn… I forgot to think about peril!'

All in all, it's a rather hazardous combination, and a mind-bogglingly contradictory one. It's all very well giving up one's life for someone else's freedom, but giving up one's life for one's own freedom must be slightly less satisfying. So what does this tell us about humankind?

Perhaps it's the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Not just knowing how to do something, but understanding what it will lead to and being in control of the consequences. Yet, unlike the octopus - whose escape-plan is flawless, but whose ultimate end will be met through ignorance - we seem to know our peril but are powerless to prevent it happening. Whether climate change, global recession, destructive relationships or unhealthy patterns of thinking, we feel ourselves being sucked down the plug, but can't work out how to put the plug back in.

Maybe the lesson is to be more like the octopus, with a yearning for freedom that supplants self-preservation. When Christ died, he didn't know whether even one of us would take advantage of his monumental sacrifice. For all he knew, we might all decide to stay in our tiny tanks. Would that have rendered his death pointless?

Perhaps the octopus knows freedom is an end in itself, even if only experienced in the last, magnificent seconds of a life lived recklessly. That's quite a thought for 2009.
Alternatively, perhaps we should just get more limbs, fewer bones and increase the number of small crustaceans in our diet. I don't know. Take your metaphorical pick.