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Get Pricked or Die Alone

Updated: Apr 2

By Ola Abozid

When does compromise become self-sabotage? In his final great book before his death, Parerga and Paralipomena, Arthur Schopenhauer discusses The Porcupine Dilemma. On a random cold, winter day, a group of porcupines stand outside absorbed in the virulent cold. In search of warmth, they huddle together but are quickly forced to disperse when close due to their quills pricking one another. Although they have been pricked, the cold drives them back to one another, where they are faced with the same recurring cycle. The porcupines realize that their closeness in proximity will only cause them harm and yet they, again and again, huddle together, seeking comfort and warmth. After repeated attempts of congregating and dispersing, they find that it would be best to keep a bit of a distance from one another (Schopenhauer, 99). 

This dilemma was originally popularized as the Hedgehog’s Dilemma by Sigmund Freud but Schopenhauer refurbished the title due to porcupine’s much sharper and more dangerous spikes. His modification of the title functions to emphasize just how much emotional distress, similar to sharp quills pricking our tender and susceptible skin, people will often endure in search of something akin to intimacy. In the same way that these porcupines replicate their cycles and patterns, the need for community and comfort drives us humans to one another only to be repelled by disagreeable qualities and incongruent ideologies. Thus, like the porcupines, we choose to remain at a moderate distance from one another that is tolerably subpar to our need for both connection and self-preservation. As Schopenhauer explains it, “A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself” ( Schopenhauer, 99). Due to the inherent shame that can come from showcasing one’s shortcomings in society, people often resort to a reticent nature, where they uphold an intangible barrier between themselves and their close relationships. 

This metaphor is a simplistic compacting for humans’ complex inability to break down their emotional barriers for one another. It encapsulates the innate need for connection that juxtaposes our synchronous fear of intimacy. The closer we become, the more we hurt each other. We desire to see and be seen and yet squirm at the faintest chance of getting just that. The hedgehogs are exhausted from the cold and seek out warmth from one another but can not help pricking one another deeper as they get closer and, thus, they are forced to disperse. They repeat the cycle again and again til settling on the bare minimum form of comfort. Similar to the porcupine’s comfortable distance, we seem to live at an adequate distance from one another, fearing the confrontation that comes from being truly seen by others. Although it is assumed that we are all, in the end, seeking connection, we also seem to be our own biggest nemesis. It’s a cyclical paradox of craving a concept so much that you manifest it into a taboo or shame when, in reality, that very thing is what would fulfill you. 

One could concur that the irony of the concept stems from the inherent selfishness of humans. The worst things one can endure in their lifetime are pain and failure; People fear the shame of failing so much that they would rather live in paralysis. We want to get everything desired while enduring minimal damage; we stay within blurred lines and unfulfilling roles in fear of taking a risk. Uncertainty is not as harmful as the concreteness of knowing, and, thus, we choose limbo every time.  We adhere to the norms of fatuous social politeness of “How are you?” and “Thank you” but fail to treat our interpersonal relationships with the same level of reliability and responsiveness. Vulnerability with loved ones is, by no doubt, difficult, considering that their responses and retorts affect us most vehemently. That said, it is also much easier to plead incapable of growth, for fear of confronting our responsibility within our failures.

Based on Schopenhauer’s writing, it sounds like we are destined for a life of inadequate closeness. Are we to live a lifetime stunted emotionally and interpersonally? Luckily, Schopenhauer failed to account for one more thing: The same way in which we resemble porcupines with our metaphorical quills on guard, we also share that, when handled with care and patience, we let go of our hypervigilance and start to lower our guard, or quills in this scenario. When relaxed and unafraid, porcupine’s quills lie flat, hidden under a layer of long guard hairs. Similar to how porcupines eventually lower their quills when unthreatened, humans tend to lower their guard when they feel safe around another. If making the active choice to be our most bare selves is too immobilizing, at least, we can find comfort in the fact that a lot of the time these things happen naturally and implicitly. At the end of the day, no great achievement was attained alone and no success was made without community. Almost, if not, all great historical accomplishments were built on society as its foundation. Similarly, most times, the answer is finding comfort within one another. 

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