Are you aware of the porcupine dilemma?

Today is April 16 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “are you aware of the porcupine dilemma?” This daily question is timely given the state of social distancing as a result of the current global pandemic crisis. Learning how to address the porcupine dilemma is an important tool for those looking to navigate the chaos.


The porcupine dilemma is a metaphor concerning the dynamics, challenges, and consequences of human intimacy. Both Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud have used this situation to describe what they feel is the state of the individual in relation to others in society.


According to Schopenhauer:


A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However, the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.


The porcupine dilemma suggests that despite the best of intentions human intimacy cannot occur without substantial mutual harm, and what results is cautious behavior and weak relationships. It describes a situation in which a group of porcupines move close to one another to share heat during cold weather.


As they draw close, they begin wounding each other with their quills. Warmed but maimed, they instinctually draw apart, only to find themselves shivering and longing for the heat of other bodies again. Eventually, they discover the potentiality of warmth lies in the right span of space — close enough to share in a greater collective temperature, but not so close as to inflict the pricks of proximity.


Thus, when seeking to address the porcupine dilemma, one is recommended to use moderation in affairs with others both because of self-interest, as well as out of consideration for others. This dilemma is used to explain introversion and self-imposed isolation as well as the mandatory social distancing now in place around the world as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic crisis.


Deborah Luepnitz examined this dilemma in her 2003 book Schopenhauer's Porcupines: Intimacy and Its Dilemmas: Five Stories Of Psychotherapy. Through a series of five patient case studies, Luepnitz discusses how individuals learn to adapt to the porcupine dilemma and leverage therapy to live a full life and concluded: “Psychotherapy cannot make us whole, but it does allow us to transform suffering into speech and, ultimately, to learn to live with desire.”


As global events continue to alter the very fabric of how we live and work, understanding how to address the porcupine dilemma can help you navigate the chaos. Perhaps we can take solace in the understanding that “It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy” Jane Austen wrote in Sense and Sensibility, “it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.” We may be engaged in social distancing but let us not use that as an excuse to acquiesce our intimate relationships.


How often do you reflect upon the porcupine dilemma?