Porcupine’s Dilemma

While listening to patients talk about how their desire to get close to someone is often constrained by their perceived need to “self-protect,” I couldn’t help but think of the Porcupine’s Dilemma, a parable made famous by German Philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. This parable describes a cold winter day where a group of porcupines huddle together seeking warmth, only to get so close they end up pricking each other with their quills. They immediately retreat from each other, only to get cold again and come back together craving warmth. Of course, as they get too close, they hurt each other once again and the porcupines continue this dance for which there is no respite.

This porcupine-filled tale brings up a key question — How do we as humans find a way to achieve the closeness we so crave without getting hurt? The challenge of intimacy is to find a way to accept our need for self protection in a way that leaves room to embrace others. As Diane Keaton told her daughter in the movie Something’s Gotta Give, “You can’t hide from love for the rest of your life because maybe it won’t work out. It’s just not a way to live.”

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