Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Porcupine’s Dilemma

“A man who has friends must himself be friendly,
But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

(Proverbs 18:24)

Wildlife is an amazing thing. The writer of Proverbs once said, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”[i] The writer of Proverbs also referred to eagles, serpents and ships. He was continually looking with an intent to gain wisdom from the world around him – the world of nature and wildlife. Today, we too, shall look at the world of nature and explore insights gained from the age old porcupine. John Ortberg, in his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, points out ‘The Porcupine’s Dilemma’. He says:

“The North American Common Porcupine is a member of the rodent family that has 30,000 quills attached to it’s body. The porcupine is not generally regarded as a lovable animal. Each quill can be driven into an enemy, and the enemy’s body heat will cause the microscopic barb to expand and become more firmly embedded. The wounds can fester; the more dangerous ones, affecting vital organs, can be fatal.

The porcupine is not generally regarded as a lovable animal. The Latin name, erethizon dorsatum, means ‘the irritable back,”[ii] and they all have one. Books and movies celebrate almost every conceivable animal – not just dogs and cats and horses, but also pigs (Babe; Arnold Ziffel from the old TV show Green Acres), spiders (Charlotte’s Web), dolphins (Flipper), bears (Gentle Ben), and killer whales (Free Willy). Even skunks have Pepe Le Pew. I don’t know of any famous porcupines. I don’t know any child who has one for a pet.

As a general rule, porcupines have two methods for handling relationships: withdrawal and attack. They either head for a tree or stick out their quills. They are generally solitary animals. Wolves run in packs, sheep huddle in flocks; we speak of herds of elephants and gaggles of geese and even a murder of crows, but there is no special name for a group of porcupines. They travel alone.

Porcupines don’t always want to be alone. In the late autumn, a young porcupine’s thoughts turn to love. But love turns out to be a risky business when you’re a porcupine. Females are open to dinner and movie only once a year; the window of opportunity closes quickly. And a girl porcupine’s “no” is the most widely respected turndown in all the animal kingdom. Fear and anger make them dangerous little creatures to be around.

This is the Porcupine’s Dilemma: How do you get close without getting hurt?”

This is our dilemma, too. Every one of us carries our own little arsenal. Our barbs have names like rejection, condemnation, resentment, arrogance, selfishness, envy, contempt. Some people hid them better than others, but get close enough and you will find out they’re there. They burrow under the skin of our enemies; they can wound and fester and even kill. We, too, learn to survive through a combination of withdrawal and attack. We, too, find ourselves hurting (and being hurt by) those we long to be closest to.

Yet we, too, want to get close. We meet neighbors, go on dates, join churches, form friendships, get married, have children. We try to figure out how to get close without getting hurt. We wonder if there isn’t a softer, less-barbed creature out there – a mink or an otter perhaps.

And of course, we can usually think of a number of particularly prickly porcupines in our lives. But the problem is not just them. I’m somebody’s porcupine. So are you.

Conflict in the Middle East is boiling. It is striking to me that in the newspapers this morning two words from that region are becoming familiar to the West. These words express the only two ways that many of the people involved currently see for dealing with each other. The first is an Arabic word: jihad, attack. This is a story from survivor of the 1990’s war in Yugoslavia, as told by Miroslav Volf:

I am a Muslim, and I am thirty-five years old. To my second son, I gave the name “Jihad.” So he would not forget the testament of his mother – revenge. The first time I put my baby at my breast, I told him, “May this mild choke you if you forget.” So be it. The Serbs taught me to hate…My student, Zoran, the only son of my neighbor, urinated into my mouth. As the bearded hooligans standing around laughed, he told me: “You are good for nothing else, you stinking Muslim woman”… Jihad – war. This is the only way.[iii]

What we see drive-by shootings and suicide bombings is only the ultimate outworking of anger that is in all of our hearts. We get hurt, and we want to hurt back. Little jihads get fought every day between people who work together in the same office, between people who lead small groups in the same church; between husband and wife, between parent and child. Jihads go back as far as Cain and Abel: “While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.”[iv]

The second word is a Hebrew word, hafrada. Hafrada is a word for separation and withdrawal. A newspaper account explains the policy: “Wall of the West Bank. Keep all but a few Palestinians out of Israel. Shut off most… dealings with the other side. And enforce it all with overwhelming military might.”[v]

We know about walls, too. The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain are expressions of the same impulse that causes all of us to withdraw and withhold ourselves. Sometimes that wall is a newspaper at a breakfast table that expresses an emotional distance that cannot be bridged. At other times, it may be the TV remote, a book or headphones. Separation is as old as Adam and Eve: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid,…so I hid.”[vi]

Jihad and hafrada. Attack and withdrawal. It is an ironic thing that the Middle East – home of many of the world’s great religions – should bequeath these two words to the art of human relationships.

But these are not just problems faced by strife-torn populations in a distant part of the world. Dallas Willard writes that assault and withdrawal are the two essential forms of relational sin. We assault others when we act against what is good for them. This is true even if it happens with their consent – to give a whiskey to an alcoholic, for example. We withdraw from someone when we regard their well-being as a matter of indifference to us. Attack and withdrawal are practiced by every human being on earth, and they damage every marriage and family and workplace and church.[vii]

At the root, they are the two expressions of the one great sin, which is a lack of love, the violation of the one great commandment. All of our relational mismanagement is really a variation on these two tendencies of the fallen human heart. When we feel threatened, we want to hurt others or hide from them. We, too, heard for a tree or stick out our quills.[viii]

q Are you more prone to Jihad or hafrada (attack or withdrawal)? (if your not sure, ask your spouse or a close friend.)

q How does attacking or withdrawal manifest itself?

q Can you identify where you acquired this? (i.e. mother, father, etc)

"People of the world don’t look at themselves,
and so they blame one another.”

Mevlana Rumi

"The greatest conflicts are not between two people
but between one person and himself."
Garth Brooks

"Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional."
Max Lucado

"To observe people in conflict is a necessary part of a child's education.
It helps him to understand and accept his own occasional hostilities
and to realize that differing opinions need not imply an absence of love."

Milton R. Sapirstein

[i] Proverbs 6:6.
[ii] “Irritable back”” See entry on porcupines in J.O. Whitaker, National Audubon Society Field Guid to North American Mannals. New York: Alfred E. Knopf, 1996.
[iii] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, 111.
[iv] Genesis 4:8.
[v] Newspaper account: Chicago Tribune, Sunday, 28 April 2002, section 1,1.
[vi] Genesis 3:10.
[vii] Ibid. Dallas Willard, Reonovation of the Heart, 182.
[viii] Ibid. John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal, 21-24.

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