Deep Fun: True Community by Rev. Anthony Makar
Sept. 23, 2018
In the 19th century, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had a personal revelation about what it means to be human in community.
The image that came up for him was that people are porcupines, covered by the quills of their “prickly and disagreeable qualities”—that’s his phrase.
But people as porcupines are living in a cold world, and to stay alive, they must seek warmth, and so they seek it by coming close together, and in this closeness genuine warmth is created, and for a time all is well.
But the inevitable happens. The “prickly and disagreeable” qualities come out. People as porcupines prick each other, and it hurts, and so people as porcupines back away, get out of there. But then the people as porcupines start getting cold again, and what else is there to do but come back together again?
And back and forth and back and forth, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Arthur Schopenhauer has gone down in the history books as one of the most pessimistic philosophers ever.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to acknowledge his point.
We all do have prickly and disagreeable qualities. Sometimes we are unkind. Sometimes we are thoughtless. Sometimes we smell.
Doesn’t matter if we didn’t mean it or mean to. The consequences add up to one thing: prickly and disagreeable.
Sometimes someone can say the nicest thing but we are so deep in negative sentiment override that we interpret their genuine kindness as a poke.
That’s us being prickly and disagreeable, but we make it about the other person.
It’s hard to not acknowledge Schopenhauer’s point.
But let’s not forget about the part about the world being cold. He’s on point there too. For example, today’s Environmental Protection Agency is firmly in the pocket of business and is steadily undoing all the gains of the past decade and is doing the exact opposite of protecting the environment.
That feels very cold to me.
Or consider the headline news about Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, whose confirmation has been put on hold because Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has come forward to say that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. What’s feeling very cold to me are all the voices insisting that the confirmation process needs to run full steam ahead anyhow, without a full investigation; or that Kavanaugh is a good guy and couldn’t possibly have done it; or that it’s just a matter of boys being boys; or it doesn’t matter anymore; or what’s wrong with the accuser and why didn’t she report it long ago? Meanwhile what we know is that many women are reluctant to come forward and report sexual assaults to authorities exactly because of what is unfolding right before our eyes, in the context of headline news.
As a people of faith, who affirm Seven Principles, we see our Principles trampled upon continually.
The world can feel so cold.
How, then, can we not turn to each other, as a people possessing common values, to huddle against the cold and to generate the sort of warmth that gives life and inspires growth?
This is the full porcupine dilemma.
Sure, you can guarantee not getting pricked if you avoid getting close enough to anyone. But this intimacy-free, pain-free state of so-called perfection is also sterile, and it stifles. You don’t learn. You don’t grow. Learning and growth happens only when we dare to be intimate with others, which means daring to be vulnerable, which means daring to be hurt.
True community is not easy.
How do we do it?
The short answer is that we need to be strong. We need to be strong in order for community to be true.
And that’s on us as individuals.
But what does that mean, to be strong?
Strong, in part, means being able to define personal boundaries and to pay attention to signs of discomfort when your limits are being violated.
Different people will define their boundaries differently. Personality and cultural background play major roles here. One person might feel that bluntly challenging another person’s opinion is a healthy way of communication, but to another person, this might feel disrespectful.
The need is to own the fact that we each have a different design when it comes to personal boundaries, and to know what that design is so we can teach others how we want to be treated. So we can articulate our discomfort if we’re feeling it.
If we do that, and the porcupines around us hear us and respect us, then we know we’ve found our right prickle (that’s what a group of porcupines is called, by the way). But if they don’t care—if they keep on poking and poking—then self-respect means we need to find a different prickle.
I really want to underscore this. When “prickly and disagreeable” qualities are not just annoying but truly abusive and making you feel unsafe, draw the line. Say your truth. If the particular prickle of porcupines you are in doesn’t respond, doesn’t care, you are not obligated to put yourself back into the line of fire. Love and take care of yourself.
Find a different prickle.
The porcupine dilemma is one thing; your physical and psychological safety and wellbeing is something else entirely.
Be strong in your self-respect.
Strong also means this. Feeling the pain of being pricked, and telling yourself a different kind of story about what’s happening.
You see, when we’re all huddling together, and porcupine number one pricks porcupine number two, porcupine number two instantly generates a story in his head about what just happened, and why porcupine number one did what they did, and what it all means. The effect of this story on porcupine number two is instantaneous and takes the form of feelings. Depending on the story, the feelings could be mere annoyance, or they could be shock, outrage, desire for revenge.
These instantaneous stories we tell ourselves, in the infinitesimal gap between something happening and how we feel about it, are so powerful.
I suggested all this in a sermon several months back, while talking about male psychology and how the “look of love” is one of the most potent forces in it. Men crave to be seen like this by their intimate partner. To be seen like this is to look into a mirror that reflects back an image of a man who is sexy, smart, competent, important, wanted. Men give so much power to this look, that when it does go away, when something is said or done that could be interpreted as criticism, it feels like you’ve been stabbed through the heart.
Thus the need to be strong and aware of the stories we’re telling ourselves. If we find ourselves pricked, so often the instantly, unconsciously generated story is “She said the thing she said because she wanted to make me feel bad!” “He did the thing he did because he wanted to hurt me!”
Tell a story like that, and of course, you’re going to feel stabbed in the heart.
But what if we were able to disrupt the instant, unconscious storytelling that we do—what if we were able to press pause and create a space for consciousness—what if we were able to tell a different story that is way more reasonable: as in, “We’re in this thing together. She or he is in a foul mood and has been under a lot of stress lately. It won’t be like that forever. It’s just temporary. She’ll bounce back. He’ll bounce back. We’re partners. We’re in this thing together.”
Humans as porcupines who are capable of this degree of consciousness and are capable of telling this second kind of story are capable of making the porcupine dilemma manageable. Yes, we all have our prickly, disagreeable qualities BUT let’s not forget that we are comrades in a world full of challenges, with complex lives of our own, worries and fears and flaws of our own, and sometimes because of that we poke others, but not because we’re intentionally taking aim and wanting another to bleed.
We are comrades in a challenging world.
Holding to that story no matter what is strength.
And, finally, is the strength that Schopenhauer himself saw as a way of making the porcupine dilemma more liveable. Elizabeth Gilbert in the video from earlier alluded to it: the challenge of creating one’s own heat. Having enough heat self-created, so that you don’t have to get so very close to the other porcupines. You never stop needing the collective heat that the group of porcupines generates—that is for sure—but the need is not so desperate anymore. You don’t have to go all co-dependent to get love.
I want to call the self-creation of one’s own heat “self-compassion.” Self-compassion is learning how to soothe difficult feelings without relying on anything that’s destructive, like alcohol, or shopaholism, or workaholism, or other kinds of addictions that distract you, that take away the pain, yes, but in a hypothermia, freezing-yourself-to-death sort of way.
Consider some forms of self-compassion, which come from life coach Cheryl Richardson:
You give yourself a nap or put yourself to bed before you feel overtired.
You take a “time out” when you feel frustrated, angry, or impatient so you can settle down and think clearly.
You speak gently to yourself when you’ve made a mistake.
You reassure yourself that everything will be okay when you get scared or when you feel lonely.
You remind yourself to be kind, not only to others, but also more importantly, to yourself.
Here’s how you create your own heat. Ways like this.
Somehow, many of us got the idea that self-criticism is an effective motivator. The source was, you better believe it, BAD mothering and BAD fathering. Porcupines that poked us and poked us and poked us until we learned to feel uncomfortable and strange if someone wasn’t constantly poking at us.
So we came to believe that harshness towards ourselves gets the job done.
So we learned to be avid pokers of ourselves.
But do we really want this?
Losing faith in yourself. YAY!
Maybe you do accomplish great things, but you feel completely miserable. HOORAY!
People say nice things to you, but you can’t take any of that inside you, but then you feel empty and unappreciated and unseen. WOO HOO!
This will make a person so cold that they have no choice but to cling so tightly to the other porcupines that the experience can hardly be endured, and the result is terrible cynicism and bitterness and worse.
Self-compassion is the better way.
On a regular basis, send yourself outside in the fresh air to walk and just to enjoy. Give yourself regular treats like an afternoon movie or a game with friends. Pay attention to what inspires your enthusiasm and generates vitality, and do more of that.
Schopenhauer offered the world a revelation about what it means to be in human community, and years later, Robert Frost would write a poem he actually entitled “Revelation.” Here’s what he says:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
That’s the poem. And oh, we know why “we make ourselves a place apart” and why we hide.
We know why the heart feels so agitated when we do hide.
But then Robert Frost says that we need to “speak the literal to inspire / The understanding of a friend./“ We who are hidden need to speak and tell people where we are.
He is saying, be strong. Strong in our boundaries to teach others how we wish to be treated, strong in our storytelling so we are telling ourselves more reasonable stories about what is happening, strong in our self-compassion so we can be friends to ourselves and generate some heat all on our very own.
This is what it means to speak the literal!
Do that, and the porcupine dilemma of true community is something we can relish rather than suffer.