Yule Story 2015

The Porcupines In Winter

Winter is known for being cold. That is usual.
Some winters are mildly cold, and some fierce.
In the forest where the porcupines lived, a new winter was beginning.
The trees stood bare, all the flowers hid. This was expected.
And the weather spirits came, whirling around trunks and boughs, whispering forecasts.
In the forest where the porcupines lived, this was usual.
This year would be the coldest yet, the weather spirits told; the coldest ever. Cold enough to freeze blood, to ice a heart mid-beat. Over and over they whispered this. Never had the weather spirits been mistaken.
This winter would be extreme.
Migratory birds took fright and flew. The forest animals were afraid. They grew their fur extra thick and ate as much as they could manage. But as the fierce wind blew, and the ground froze, they began to die, one by one.
The porcupines called a meeting. Old Grandfather Porcupine recalled a winter that had been almost this cold, when he was a pup. His old grandfather had huddled them all up, so they could share their body heat. Thermal mass would get them through, he was sure of it.
So, they huddled.
If you know porcupines, you will realise the problem.
Each of them was covered in sharp spines. So as they huddled, they also prickled.
The prickles made them fidget.
Fidgeting made the prickling worse.
They were bleeding from constant spikes.
Mother Porcupine was first to quit, but as soon as she broke from the huddle, the rest followed. They were all sick of the pain.
Old Grandfather sighed. Now he thought about it, he did remember that it had been an unpopular solution.
So they went off to forage for food, but there was scarcely any. And every mouthful was frozen solid, and it made them even colder.
The porcupines began dying, alone in the ice.
So they came back to the huddle, since they wanted to survive.
Of course, they all still had spiny coats, and the old wounds were quickly opened.
This is a dilemma, Mother said.
How should we put up with each other, when we want to live but not be hurt?
And then a young porcupine, whom no one had previously considered as being wise, spoke up.
I dreamt of the ocean, he said. I saw the water rise up in waves. Great waves, storm waves. Repetitive choppy waves. What struck me, he said, was that no matter how big or wild or harsh or persistent the waves were, the ocean was always bigger.
I see, said Old Grandfather. The waves are like problems.
Yes, the young porcupine nodded. Like the winter cold and the wounds we have.
And the ocean, that’s our whole existence?
Yes, whether we notice it or not, it is there. And think of the sky, which covers the earth and the sea!
I like that, said Old Grandfather. Tell me that story again.

This is a retelling of an old story. I’m not sure of its origin. Schopenhauer and Freud both borrowed it to explain social relationships without necessarily drawing the same conclusions, so the moral of this story may be dependent on how you relate to people.
Arthur Schopenhauer observed that the prickliness of proximity allowed only moderate huddling, so that the warmth generated was not entirely satisfactory. People existed at a distance from each other, to avoid annoyance. The rare person had enough of their own heat to do no huddling at all, and suffer no prickling.
Sigmund Freud saw the tale in psychological terms, as a quandary of social inclusion and exclusion.
I saw an opportunity to promote the coping aspect of story telling, so I added the bit about the ocean, but the analogy of the waves and the ocean I received from meditation teacher, psychologist and author, Tara Brach. I also first heard the porcupine story in one of her lectures. Meditation, mindfulness, the sea, the sky, and stories have got me through every winter so far.


Geo. said…
A charming and instructive story. I feel like I've been given something. Thank you!

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