What Jellyfish and Your Best Life Have in Common

I had an epiphany this morning, and I think it had more to do with the jellyfish than the coffee.

I’d just flipped the cover of Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and was gazing at a gelatinous creature glowing on black pages.

It took a few moments for me to realise what I was really seeing.

Before me was something from the deep and dark, something that had remained secret for centuries and which now found itself on the pages in my hands. It seemed amazing that I was sipping a coffee while watching a creature that emitted its own pink light and trailed ribbons of living purple. Suddenly my whole life was juxtaposed with ocean depths.

Journalist Julia Baird would tell me that such experiences of awe are essential to a life well-lived. In Phosphorescence she writes,

“What has fascinated and sustained me over these last few years has been the notion that we have the ability to carry our own inner, living light — a light to ward off the darkness.”

For Julia, bioluminescence — a kind of phosphorescence — is a symbol of the light within that keeps us going in dark times. This is apt, because as she explains, bioluminescence occurs when creatures release energy they’ve absorbed from sunlight.

“When our days are shadowed and leached of meaning, when circumstances shower us with mud, how can we be sure to re-emit lessons we absorb in the sunlight?” she writes.

Phosphorescence is filled with stories and studies of how the answer — awe — makes life worth living. A while back I was lucky enough to speak to Lisa-ann Gershwin, who chose between a life lived in awe and one built on others’ perceptions of success. She shows us that awe and wonder can guide us to a fulfilling life.

Awe as Career Counsellor

Jellyfish, floating in a tank, re-lit Lisa Gershwin’s heart.

In high school people told Lisa her dream of a marine biology career wasn’t worth it. What they said was true: a job in science probably wouldn’t pay well, if you even managed to find one.

“And I thought that meant something,” Lisa writes on her website.

“So as I grew up, I tried to find something that made my heart feel as glorious and alive as it did when I thought about octopus and hermit crabs and their scurrying underwater kin.”

What followed was an interesting and profitable life. Lisa worked in hospitality, met Barbara Streisand while working at a famous movie theatre, and did very well as a stockbroker. She’d resigned the marine world to two weeks a year spent snorkelling to her heart’s content.

But all that changed in her mid-twenties, when she saw jellyfish at an aquarium.

“The 20 years since have been nothing short of a vibrant and passionate love affair.”

Now, the PhD marine biologist and Fulbright recipient is a world expert on jellyfish and has discovered more than 200 new species.

What’s important here is that Lisa devotes her days to what she uniquely appreciates. In other words, she lives.

Albert Einstein famously said that someone “who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”

To hear Lisa talk, you’d think she’s ‘rapt in awe’ most of the time.

So, What Does That Mean For Us?

This morning as I finished my coffee and looked over the hills, I felt full of possibility. Here was I in a marvellous world.

I wondered about my work, whether it did justice to the marvellous, whether it was all that it could be. Did it light a flame in me?

I’m a fan of new perspectives, and hilarity. And birds. I hope my writing makes your day a bit weirder.

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