Porcupines & Happiness: a mixed blessing!
Four little porcupines crawled into their lair, to escape the cold and blowing snow, each moving to his or her separate corner in the dark. After a few minutes, they began to inch closer together for warmth and comfort from the chilly air. But as soon as they got too close, OUCH, their prickly quills collided and they quickly moved apart, back to their separate corners. Such is the parable of Schopenhauer’s Porcupines.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a grumpy and controversial psychotherapist, skillfully used this story to provide a metaphor for a common theme in close relationships. We desire closeness, even daydream about the romantic or intimate value of these relationships, but when we get too close, spend too much time with those we love, we may find ourselves searching for our own quiet corner, no matter how cold it might be!
Holidays offer lots of opportunities for our quills to get entangled. We have such romanticized ideals about what each holiday should look and feel like, that it is not uncommon to feel let down, both by family members and friends but also by the circumstances of the day.
As I step into holiday mode, here are a few things that I like to remember, which can help me to set my expectations at a realistic level and help me to relax and enjoy the experiences as they unfold:
- There is no one right way to celebrate. For some people, just being in the same room, while fully engaged in a football game, is their version of a close family experience. For others, deep conversations, shared games or shared memories are the only way to connect. I like to remind myself to chill out – to each his/her own. I seek out those who like to share time in the way that I might, and let others enjoy the time in the way that suits them best. I am learning to know when to stop being the conductor of the orchestra!
- Don’t take the bait. Sometimes friends and family, regardless of the closeness of the relationship, will say things that seem directly intended to hurt or irritate. However, in my experience, people will often say things, out of desperation to simply make conversation or fill the air, without really thinking about how their words might land. In most cases, they don’t intend to be hurtful, they just aren’t thinking. So, I make an effort to just give them the benefit of the doubt, turn the conversation in another direction and move on.
- The holidays are rarely the right time to settle old scores, solve complex family issues or engage in deeply personal or vulnerable conversations. Holidays are often about forced closeness, where people tend to be a little more on-edge or emotional. If I see a high-conflict or deeply emotional discussion brewing, I am more likely to let the other person know that the subject is important and I want to give it my full attention, so I’d like to set aside some special time, outside of the family gathering, to really get into the content.
- Check your motivation. Before you enter into a conversation, bring up a tricky subject, comment on another person’s life, style or choices, ask yourself, what is my motivation in this moment? Am I trying to strengthen our relationship, build trust and/or demonstrate empathy or caring? Am I trying to prove that I am right and you are wrong? Am I trying to look better than you? Make you feel bad about your decisions or force you to defend yourself? Am I trying to entertain you? Engage you? Again, I think we jump into conversations too quickly, and don’t stop to think about our own motivation or how our words will land.
Holidays can be a wonderful experience and a time to build and strengthen relationships and to bask in the love of family and friends. However, we all have quills and sometimes we need to realize that while we want to get close, too close may not feel comfortable. It is normal to need a little space… so acknowledge that gatherings of loved ones can be a breeding ground for conflict and do a little self-preparation first. Think about what you’d like the experience to be, not only for you, but for everyone in the room. Walk forward with a plan to build peace and encourage harmony through your own actions. Then consider, in the words of Pema Chödrön:
“The warrior longs to communicate that all of us have access to our basic goodness and that genuine freedom comes from going beyond labels and projections, beyond bias and prejudice, and taking care of each other.”