Dance of the Porcupines

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Porcupines generally have two methods for handling relationships: withdrawal and attack.

They either scurry away, looking for the nearest tree, or they stick out their quills and unleash hell. It’s no surprise then that they have a hard time finding love. Running and fighting tend to be pretty unromantic.

To make matters worse for the males, girl porcupines are only “in the mood” once a year, in late Autumn, and they’re notoriously difficult to court. The girl’s “no” is one of the most respected turn-downs in the animal kingdom for hell hath no anger like a female with quills.

This problem forms what writer John Ortberg calls “the porcupine’s dilemma”. A few years ago I read a book by Ortberg titled Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them which has a great chapter on this. Ortberg notes something interesting: Wolves run in packs, sheep huddle in flocks, and we speak of herds of elephants and gaggles of geese. But there is no special name for groups of porcupines.

They travel alone.

Yet their solitude isn’t completely by choice. They don’t wake up with excitement over the fact that they won’t see another porcupine that day. Biologists say they have the same communal urges we do. But getting close without getting hurt is tough business for a porcupine.

When I read Ortberg’s book, I was living with seven other guys in a small Christian community. I could really relate to the porcupines. Our apartment was a far cry from St. Benedict and his monks as each day introduced some new relational tension. Dirty cups, borrowed clothes, and missing electronics were just the surface. The greater stings included veiled jealousy, deep-seated selfishness, and piercing words.

And those were just my dysfunctions. I realized that like the porcupines, I have a huge arsenal of barbs. I sting people every day with rejection, arrogance, and contempt. And like the porcupines, it’s reciprocated–I constantly hurt and feel hurt by those I long to be closest to, which makes community difficult.

Ortberg’s book, however, helped me work through some of that by again looking to the porcupines. On rare occasions, one porcupine will share space with another. They become friends, they learn to keep their quills to themselves, and they eventually figure out how to get along at least long enough to make sure that another generation will come along.

Amazingly, the males and females remain together for some days before mating. During this romantic period, they touch paws, flatten their barbs, and they walk on their hind feet in the so-called “dance of the porcupines”. It looks something like this (sans hardcore rock):

Only God could conceive a solution to community that involves two porcupines, fox-trotting paw-to-paw.

Which means there really is an answer to the ancient question, how do porcupines make love? They pull in their quills and learn to dance.

We all want to get close without getting hurt. We meet neighbors, talk with coworkers, go on dates, and join church groups. We try to stay away from particularly prickly people. But the problem is not just them.

It’s us. I’m someone’s porcupine. And so are you.

So instead of withdrawal or attack, instead of launching your own barbs and bristling against others, there’s a much better solution.

Pull in your quills and start dancing.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Brandon Vogt is a Catholic writer and speaker who blogs at The Thin Veil. He’s also the author of The Church and Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet and the top hit on Google for “greatest evil in the world”.[/author_info] [/author]

(Image Credit: Squidoo and Tumblr)

Brandon Vogt

Brandon Vogt

Brandon Vogt is a Catholic writer and speaker who blogs at He's also the author of The Church and Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet and the top hit on Google for "greatest evil in the world".

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