Wisdom and Life Lessons from a Humble Jellyfish
Rani Shah tells us about "harnessing the rhythms of nature for self-care."
Posted Apr 20, 2020
I recently received a copy of Rani Shah's new book Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish: And Other Self-Care Rituals from Nature and found it to be a fascinating read.1 Sometimes when I see books like this in which nonhuman animals are used for providing lessons for how we should live I'm very skeptical. However, I approached Ms. Shah's book with an open mind and learned quite a bit about how various animals can provide valuable insights about how to deal with many situations in which we find ourselves. I was very pleased that Ms. Shah could take the time to answer a few questions about her new book.
Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish?
Rani Shah: It all began with a humble blog post, "Fascinating Productivity Routines We Can Learn From Nature," I wrote for Trello’s blog. As the blog post gained traction, so did the ideas presented within it. When offered the chance to work on a book surrounding the concepts of nature and self-care, I jumped at the opportunity.
Having the privilege of writing a book is one thing, however, writing a book about your favorite topic ever? That’s a dream come true. So, while writing Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish was partially a very selfish decision—because it meant hours of research into animals and nature—it was also my chance to broadcast how I viewed the earth and its inhabitants.
In a time where politics and beliefs are encroaching on scientific research and our planet’s health, I felt like writing this book was a step in the right direction towards self-awareness, sparking interest, and most importantly, exciting the human population on what our wildlife has to offer.
MB: How does it relate to your background and general areas of interest?
RS: Different parts of this book relate to different parts of my personal and career path so far. The concept of writing a science and self-care book largely stems from my nearly obsessive level of interest in animals and natural science. With biology being one of my favorite topics in school from a young age to bingeing and rewatching shows like Planet Earth whenever I had a chance—the subject matter is something that comes second nature to me in terms of interest. Growing up, my most iconic memories are road trips to national parks and absorbing every word the park rangers would tell us when showing us the landscape, wildlife, or even a small flower.
My career has been anything but linear but has luckily landed me here. I’ve always had a love for science, as well as a love for creating different forms of writing and media, however, I only had the courage to pursue the former when I entered college. With a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering, understanding the basics of how to research has helped me. That being said, I never truly pursued a career in this field, before I had even graduated I was working in a Communications role for a small startup—slowly but surely building my writing skills along the way.
As my career progressed, so did my confidence in finally sharing what I was writing. Small blogs here and there eventually led to the creation of a portfolio. The creation of Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish is truly my deepest interests and my proudest professional learnings coming together.
MB: Who is your intended audience?
RS: Everyone. Without trying to sound like my ego has blown up, this book is truly for everyone. While the first half of the title of this book, Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish, focuses on the science-centric nature of it, the second half is oftentimes neglected, And Other Self-Care Rituals from Nature. Self-care is a practice that sounds a lot less necessary than it truly is.
For those of us on social media, self-care has been painted as a practice that consists of beautiful bubble baths, face masks, and getting your hair done. While all these things are legitimate forms of self-care, what’s important is that they are by no means the only forms of it. Not only do we all relax in different ways, but the notion that self-care is only relaxation is a farce.
Taking care of oneself consists of making decisions that allow you to create an environment to be your best self towards yourself and others. Self-care can mean taking a long bath to take the edge of a long day, but it also can mean deciding to stop seeing "friends" who are constantly negative and drain your energy. It can mean signing up for a class you are terrified of attending. It can mean moving to a different city even if it means you don’t know anyone there. Self-care is the practice of putting yourself and opportunities that will benefit you first. This may seem selfish to some, however, by striving to be the best version of yourself it becomes easier to give your best to those around you.
Everyone can benefit from that messaging. Not only are the facts about animals and nature something for all age groups, but I also hope the way the messages of self-care are intertwined makes them easier to remember and put into practice.
MB: What are some of your major messages?
RS: The driving force behind a lot of the messaging in this book is around how caring for our planet in itself is a form of self-care. Many of the animals mentioned are on the endangered species list, which only makes the lessons we can learn from them more poignant.
A theme that tends to pop up throughout the book is the concept of failure and how we are obsessed with avoiding failure with everything we do. Rather than treating failure as a very normal facet of life, we hide failures, we stop taking risks because it may lead to failure, we softly speak of others’ failures when we think no one is listening. I relate our attitude towards failure with our friend, the porcupine.
This mammal is one we’re fairly familiar with—the size of a medium dog and a body packed with long, sharp spikes. The porcupine routinely climbs up and down trees, sometimes while on its descent it may fall, resulting in the porcupine impaling itself with one of its own quills! When this occurs, the damage done by the quills is not nearly as much of a concern as the infection that may result from this impalement.
Accounting for this mishap, or failure, porcupines have evolved to have quills that are coated in a lipid layer, making them resistant to certain bacterial infections. So when our spiky friends inevitably injure themselves, their bodies have accounted for this mistake by at least ensuring they won’t get an infection.
Like the porcupine, a major message in this book is how failure is not only inevitable, it’s something we can all recover from. Rather than hiding it or resisting it or being scared of it, it’s ok to prepare for it and one day, learn from it.
MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?
RS: Talking about self-care is nothing new. However, relating self-care to creatures in the wild is something I feel is not only entertaining but makes it feel more accessible. For me, knowing that the avocado tree or even the sloth are naturally inclined to behave in ways that put their well-being first makes me feel like I can (and should) start thinking it’s ok to make space for some self-care myself. In this book, I feel like the message of self-care being truly natural is not just a bullet point, but rather the entire plot.
MB: What are some of your current projects?
RS: I’m currently in the outlining phase of another book concept, this one surrounds themes of being a second-generation South Asian-American—things that not only I’ve experienced but exploring the common and quirky similarities a lot of second-gen kids have while growing up. I already have a site, Fuss Class News, that focuses on humor-based, satirical articles and events within the South Asian diaspora, however, I feel like there is a growing audience that would feel "seen" by having a real-life text available about our collective experiences.
I’m also open to writing more on the theme of Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish. Education about our planet is crucial and it’s a topic I don’t think I would ever get tired of learning or sharing about.
MB: Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?
RS: Follow more happenings about the book on Instagram at @humblejellyfish
Note 1) The book's description reads: We could all learn a thing or two about living in balance from our friends in the plant and animal kingdom. Take, for example, the jellyfish, one of the most energy-efficient animals in the world, moving through the ocean by contracting and relaxing, with frequent breaks in between. Or the avocado tree, which can credit its existence to a mutually beneficial relationship with the pre-historic sloth, followed by some hungry, hungry humans and the advent of agriculture. And then there is the oyster, producing a pearl as the result of an immune response when a grain of sand invades her system. What better example exists of how adversity can produce something beautiful?
We need look no farther than nature—from the habits of the porcupine to the sunflower to the wombat to the dragonfly—for small and simple things we can do to slow down, recharge, and living more thoughtfully, lovingly, and harmoniously.
Bekoff, Marc. Dogs Really Aren't Good Go-To Animals for How We Should Live. (If you think and behave like a dog, you might find yourself in a lot of trouble.)
_____. Lessons From Nature When Powerful Females Call the Shots. (A recent essay examines female dominance and leadership in different species.)
Carrier, Jim and Marc Bekoff. Nature's Life Lessons: Everyday Truths from Nature. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado, 1996.