Indian Crested Porcupine

Parerga und Paralipomena

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.

Arthur Schopenhauer

I wrestled with the decision to post this parable.

I decided to post it because:

  • Porcupines are familiar and concrete, and this simplifies and allows the mind to access an abstract human predicament through a bigger doorway. The story and explanation are short.
  • It might promote social skills and enhance psychological awareness of group interaction. Relationships are difficult to approach, maintain, and endure at times. As humans, we are pulled towards them- desiring warmth, connection, and positive exchange- but as we get near another person, negative sparks start to fly: egos invariably clash and we feel as separate entities. Feeling the repulsion, we get angry and annoyed with one another and ourselves. We back off when we don’t feel “connected,” or maybe we try too hard to connect and resonate. It’s scary and offsetting to feel a negative charge. We might stumble around looking for something stronger, but the end result is always the same: separation of self and other.
  • Some think this story is pessimistic. Personally, I think it’s realistic and helpful. If we can grasp, and maybe even embrace the difficulty inherent in group interaction, conflict might be reduced. It might even, paradoxically, allow us to get closer to one another. We all know the distance exists, and perhaps there can be a relaxation of expectation because of this mutual understanding. This may allow us to feel healthier and normal.

We are all porcupines. Who wants to be fused with another person anyways? We wouldn’t have original, dynamic identities. We wouldn’t move. =)