Searching for the Most Beautiful Word

Stephen Hunt/ Getty Images , from Redbook

I find it odd that J.R.R. Tolkien believed that the most beautiful sound in the English language was the words “cellar door.” To be honest, I just can’t agree with him: to me, at least, these words don’t sound lovely or inviting. Mysterious? Yes. Intriguing? Perhaps. But certainly not beautiful.

So I’ve tried my best to identify a word I do consider beautiful, and I think I’ve found one: “senescence.” I love the way the sibilant “s” sound eases through my lips. I had a serious lisp as a child, going to speech therapy throughout my early elementary school years, so maybe the word “senescence” has the attraction of forbidden fruit to me. Whatever the reason, I find “senescence” to be an elegant word, yet at the same time both humble and understated. It truly is a lovely word, with a soft, inviting sound that charms the ear.

The unpleasant reality rests in the meaning of the word: “the condition or process of deterioration with age.”

Oops. Looks like I’ve picked a word as fraught with problems as Tolkien’s “cellar door.”

But since I’m on the subject anyway (see how I did that?), let me discuss the most moving story about senescence I’ve ever encountered. Surprisingly, it’s not about human beings, but rather about octopuses. (And yes, the plural of “octopus” is “octopuses,” not “octopi.” This short article explains why, while cleverly pointing out the irony in the whole debate, since octopuses live as solitary creatures and so presumably one might never really need to use the plural of the word in a natural setting.)

Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus must be a good book, because I still remember it clearly, several years after I listened to an audio version of it. The part that I found most memorable is Montgomery’s discussion of the senescence of her octopus friend. It is one of the most beautiful, and one of the saddest, descriptions of the natural world I’ve ever encountered.

While octopuses don’t have a centralized nervous system or a brain, as we do, they seem to experience consciousness. Recent films, for example, have documented the friendships that certain octopuses have formed with human beings. Clearly, they have the capacity to make memories, as well as other complicated mental functions. For example, this video segment shows an octopus dreaming. The takeaway here is that despite its alien appearance, the octopus is much more than a scary-looking sea monster; it is a creature with feelings and opinions, at least as much as the other animals we live with, such as dogs and cats .

But an octopus has a very short lifespan, living only three or so years. And the last thing a female octopus does, as it enters this final stage of life, this period of senescence, is to produce a collection of lacy, bundled eggs and festoon her den with them. Below is an image of an octopus with her eggs from an NPR article:

Stuart Westmorland/Corbis

The octopus will then spend the rest of the time remaining to her caring for these eggs, and then, with her last bit of energy, her final breath, so to speak, she will launch these eggs into life, just as she herself leaves it.

Now here’s the thing about Sy Montgomery’s book: the octopus that Montgomery befriended was a female, so she produced eggs and draped them in her aquarium home, but they were never fertilized, because she was acquired too early in her life to have been able to fertilize them. Yet that made no difference to her. She cared for those empty egg sacs just as assiduously as if they had had baby octopuses within them.

Perhaps she just didn’t know the difference. But I choose to believe that there is a powerful lesson here. That octopus did what she had to do: her drive to create was inborn, and she could no more resist that urge to lay eggs and then to take care of them than she could resist the urge to eat, or to sleep, or, when the time came, to die. And here’s where I find an important parallel between the octopus and us, one that has nothing to do with our role as parents, but rather as creators.

Look at it this way: one of the functions of human beings is to create things, all sorts of things, depending on who we are and what kind of gifts we develop in ourselves. We might create stories, as Shakespeare did, or important bodies of research, as Jane Goodall has, or structures, like the Great Wall of China. We might create an epic poem, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, or we might make a baby blanket out of yarn and a set of knitting needles. We might build a beautiful bench, or craft a powerful speech. We might create relationships that continue into the next generation. It doesn’t matter what shape it takes; one thing that humans do, without fail, is create. The least talented of us cannot go through this life without having created something at some point during the time allotted to us on this earth.

The problem is, many of us don’t honor our creations. We don’t think our creations could possibly matter, so we fail to protect and nurture them. We throw them away, making them disposable, ultimately discounting their importance.

But the octopus teaches us a different lesson. She shows us that whether there are baby octopuses within the eggs or not, it’s important to treat them all with respect. She demonstrates that it’s the act of creation and our response to that act that matters, and not whether the product of our creative urge is a success or a failure.

This realization hit me powerfully when I first listened to Montgomery’s book. In fact, walking down a sunny street in Dallas, tears coursed down my cheeks, and I didn’t care whether the other people on the path around White Rock Lake noticed or not. I cried at first because the futility of the octopus’s gesture struck me like a gale-force wind. It all seemed so useless, so empty. Was life really so cruel and hopeless?

But within a few minutes I realized that the important thing here was the act of creation, not the product of creation, and there’s a big difference. It didn’t stop my tears, but it did change the cause of them. The octopus’s actions seemed so selfless, so beautiful, that her death made me ache as if I’d known her myself. Her senescence, her final actions, these seemed to me worthy of a Verdi opera or tenth symphony from Beethoven.

Because the beauty of the octopus’s dying gesture more than balances the tragedy of it.

And now, some years later, entering my own period of senescence, I realize what we human beings share with that octopus. Some of us create viable things that go on to have a life of their own; some of us create the equivalent of empty egg sacs. But it doesn’t matter. We all have engaged in the act of creation, and that’s what makes us alive.

I might never achieve an existence as beautiful as that of an octopus, but I can keep the memory of her–of her senescence combined with her act of creation–in my mind so as to give me a sense of peace as I go about my own small acts of creation, and as I proceed with my own decline into old age.

In short, I’ve discovered that senescence can be beautiful both in its sound and in its meaning as well. Take that, Mr. Tolkien!

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