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How often are you aware of the porcupine dilemma?

Today is April 16 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you remind yourself of the porcupine dilemma?” The porcupine dilemma is a metaphor concerning the dynamics, challenges, and consequences of human intimacy and refers to the closer you get to someone, the more they can hurt you. That's why some space is needed for a healthy relationship. As you navigate the chaos by leveraging your mind, body, and spirit, it would behoove you to periodically reflect upon the role intimacy, both platonic and otherwise, plays in your life situation. Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud have used this situation to illustrate the state of the individual in relation to others in society. In brief, here is the porcupine dilemma (also called the hedgehog dilemma) 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.

In his October 2020 Psychology Today article "The Porcupine Dilemma: What Sigmund Freud Knew," Dale Hartley noted that Freud kept a small metal porcupine on his desk to remind himself of the dilemma. In some shape, form, or fashion, the porcupine dilemma has been around for centuries.

For example, in the early 17th century English playwright William Shakespeare published As You Like It and provided the world with the observation that “Most friendship is feigning, most love mere folly.” In one succinct sentence, Shakespeare summarizes the human element involved with the porcupine dilemma; friendship is fake and love is foolish. If we apply the porcupine dilemma to relationships we conclude that friends let us down and our lovers make us look like fools. Friendship and love, therefore, suffer when we get too close to people. A group of porcupines is called a prickle after all and a blunt reminder that getting close to people can result in disappointment, loneliness, or sadness.

In her 2003 book Schopenhauer's Porcupines: Intimacy and Its Dilemmas: Five Stories of Psychotherapy Deborah Luepnitz examined this dilemma and how people who have fallen victim to it can navigate the chaos and move forward. 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.” Having desires is simply a part of being human but fulfilling those desires, whether it be friendship, love, or some other want, usually requires us to get close to people. And therein lies the dilemma. Just how close does one get to another? And how long does it take to get close to someone?

In 1811 English novelist Jane Austen published Sense and Sensibility and suggested “It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; 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.”

Today’s reflection offers you an opportunity to ponder each aspect of the porcupine dilemma. As you leverage your mind, body, and spirit today to navigate the chaos keep in mind the role the porcupine dilemma plays in your life situation.

  • How often do you seek friendship and love?

  • How often have you been pricked by friendship or love?

  • Have you ever pricked anyone who was in love with you or a friend of yours?

  • How often do you consider how much love and friendship you need and what you are willing to do to obtain either?

  • How open are you to providing love and friendship to others who seek either?

  • How have you responded when you have been pricked?

  • How did others respond when you pricked them?

  • How do you respond to Shakespeare’s observation that “most friendship is feigning, most love mere folly?”

  • Do you have a certain amount of time required to be someone’s friend or to fall in love with someone?

  • How often do you remind yourself of the porcupine dilemma?

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