A little parable attributed to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) inadvertently showed me the two key ingredients to improving every relationship.
Schopenhauer’s short parable, “The Porcupine’s Dilemma,” captures the reality that relationships are tricky. When I first read this clever little story, it marked me— and in many ways, it inspired the direction of my first book. Here’s a paraphrase of Schopenhauer’s parable:
A band of porcupines gathered on a cold winter’s day. To find relief from the cold—in fact, to avoid freezing to death—the porcupines began to huddle closer together. Their shared warmth brought relief from the chill in the air, but the sharpness of their quills caused each other pain. Soon, the discomfort brought about by close proximity caused the porcupines to move further away from one another. This brought welcomed relief from the painful pokes and stabs. But soon the porcupines began to grow cold.
This dilemma illustrates the tension between intimacy and proximity, both at work and home. If we want to have warm relationships with others, at times we must move closer to them, despite their “quills.” And at other times we must learn to shield ourselves from those quills, even if it puts us at risk of the cold.
It all comes down to finding the ideal balance between the two essential relationship ingredients: building bridges (drawing closer by accepting) and setting boundaries (creating distance by protecting).
Ideally, in every relational scenario, we want to both accept (move toward the other person) and protect (put necessary boundaries in place to guard our dignity and safety). The trick is discerning the ideal balance between the two in each situation—and knowing how to reach that ideal balance.
Mastering this balance is one of the major thrusts of Part I of my first book, Renovate Your Relationships (released August 6 by Nelson/HarperCollins available for preorder http://bit.ly/RYRbook).
- Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga und Paralipomena, vol. II (1851; repr., Oxford University Press, 1974), chap. XXXI, sect. 396.