The bistro was closing, the small city’s streets quietening even further, when the conversation among the last of us lingering at the table meandered onto the subject of how to love well. A friend spoke of a letter he had once written to an old beloved, in which he had referenced a fable written by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, which delineated how causing and feeling pain are inevitable elements of intimacy.
In Schopenhauer’s tale, a group of porcupines huddling together for warmth in winter discover that unless they learn how to negotiate the reality of each other’s quills, they will perish. The story appeals equally to those who believe that feeling and wanting deep love will invariably cause agony, and those who believe that a compromise can be found. At the table, his hands and fingers enacting the movement of raised and acquiesced quills, my friend beautifully rendered the theory like so: “Each time two porcupines try to get close, one risks getting injured, if the other has its quills up but this one doesn’t. And if both do, they cannot draw nearer.” Someone else at the table completed the thought: “… Both must lower their quills at the same time, in order to be together.”
“I have suffered when I’ve had my quills up,” I said. Our taxis arrived; we hugged goodbye with plans of meeting in other places, but not before I told my friend concisely about how liberated I had felt a few months earlier, when I had told someone (who’d reappeared in a Machiavellian flourish) how they had hurt me, with unvarnished honesty. As an anecdote, it is flippant, but I consider every baring of the heart a triumph. For me, the greater woundings I carry all have to do with variations on silence – denials of truth, manipulations, fear censoring the words. This is why seemingly smaller encounters, which are not supposed to have an impact, feel amplified to me. In their provocation are echoes of other things unsaid or suppressed. Each time I express my experience, there’s more breath in my body, more felicity in my choices that follow.
To lower one’s quills is about receptivity too, not only vulnerability. It’s also about courage, which tends to frighten those who don’t engage because of fear. As another friend put it: “When you tell someone you feel hurt, they can’t twist that fact. What will they say: insist that you don’t feel hurt?” This courage prevails against both lies and silence. I had found it powerful to lower my quills to show someone whom I knew did not care for me that I knew I was worth caring for.
Mulling the porcupines’ dilemma, it’s clear: the ones worth loving and being loved by have the wisdom to know that we will hurt each other, but more intentional than the hurting is the resolve – and the trust – that we will always try not to. The ones who love well know that we are all quill-bearing creatures in need of warmth, bristly but so very tender, and capable of patiently learning where each love needs leeway, and where it locks into place, snugly.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 2nd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.