On Personal Relationships and the Hedgehog’s Dilemma

European Hedgehog Mother and Child

Human beings are like hedgehogs. We want to love and be loved. Yet, whenever we get too close to each other, we end up hurting and being hurt by the other. There is perhaps nothing worst than being hurt by the ones you love, or hurting the ones you love.

Sometimes the hurt can be so bad that it seems best not to grow close to people. Yet, we desire to be close to others. But the fear of hurting/being hurt is enough to prevent us from doing anything at all. And so, we often find ourselves living a life of contradiction – of yearning for closeness yet shunning away from it. At the end of the day, we hurt ourselves even more as a result of this internal conflict.

But we think it is alright to live like this. Why? Because we sometimes think like this: It is better to hurt myself than to hurt others or be hurt others. At least the hurt which I inflict towards myself is less painful than the hurt which comes from the ones I love.

We have all been wounded at some point of our life. Nobody has gone through life unscarred. At some point, we have been betrayed, backstabbed, disappointed, ignored, insulted, teased, and even rejected by family and friends. How could they do something like that? They’re supposed to love me, right? They do love me, don’t they?

That is what the hedgehog’s dilemma is about: We meet someone for the first time. Not knowing whether or not we will be accepted or rejected by the other, we try to look good. After being accepted for some time by the other, we begin to feel comfortable and relaxed, slowly and slowly, we begin to remove the mask and show bits of our true self. Yet, like the hedgehog, our true selves are, unfortunately, full of spikes. But the mask functions as a shield covering our spikes so that no one will be hurt. It also covers our vulnerable selves so that we won’t be hurt either. But as we begin to grow closer, we begin to slowly remove that mask to reveal our true selves. We expose our vulnerabilities and expose the sharp spikes which could hurt someone.

And so, there will come a point in time where we get too close to each other and our spikes come into contact, thereby wounding each other in that dangerous embrace of friendship.

A friend of mine commented that the name, “hedgehog’s dilemma”, is quite a misnomer. Hedgehogs don’t get injured when they come close to each other because they know how to withdraw their spikes when coming in contact with their own kind.

If that is the case, can we still consider ourselves analogous to hedgehogs? Oh yes! Definitely! We are very clumsy hedgehogs: Firstly, we don’t realise we have spikes until we have wounded and have been wounded. Secondly, even when we know about our spikes, we have difficulties controlling them. Thirdly, sometimes we can be so absent-minded that we can forget that our spikes are out.

But just like the hedgehogs, we can learn not to hurt and be hurt by learning how to master our spikes. Unfortunately, this learning requires the courage of enduring some hurts from each other until we get the hang of it.

This is why the best and closest of friendships are those where both parties have survived a really terrible conflict. There will always be a point in any relationship where the other begins acting like a retard, annoying the crap out of you, and/or pissing you off as if he/she had been paid to do it (or has an axe to grind). This is the point where the mask has been removed and the spikes have come out. This is the point where we begin to hurt and be hurt by the other.

Unfortunately, sometimes, some of us cannot endure it any longer, and the relationship ends. However, when we begin to accept that he/she has these spikes, and there’s very little we can do about it, that is when we begin to learn how to avoid being hurt by the other, and avoid hurting the other despite the closeness. That period of conflict is the learning stage. Once both have learnt it well, the storm dissipates and both are able to grow closer together.

Of course, periods of conflict will arise time and time again. That is part of the package in being a “hedgehog”. As we grow closer than before, we need to learn how to master our spikes in such new situations of closeness.

Such mastery of our spikes gives us the ability to develop long-lasting relationships with people. We can be comfortable being ourselves with such people. There is no need to wear protective masks, nor do we have difficulties embracing them without hurting/being hurt.

It is interesting to note that traditional Christian marriages never wish couples a “happy marriage”. Instead, the Church wishes them that they may remain as “one flesh”. In Chinese culture, one concept central to the culture is 和 (he), which means unity, harmony, and even happiness. I’m sure other religions and cultures have something similar to say.

Nonetheless, the point is this: since ancient times, people have recognised the problem of the hedgehog’s dilemma. People have known (since ancient times) that a happy relationship free from hurt is not a real relationship – it is either a fantasy or there’s no closeness at all. There is no happy marriage or friendship where no one gets hurt. People will hurt one another. It is an unavoidable thing in life.

The goal in any human relationship is to learn how to be so close as to become like “one flesh”. It is this harmony and unity that is a pre-requisite to happiness. Once we have learnt how to handle hurts are we then able to develop close and happy friendships.

Love is not just about loving the good parts of the other. It is also about loving the person’s spikes. These spikes are part of our being. We too have a deep desire for people to love us and our spikes. It’s easy to love the nice side of people. But a lot of effort is required to love those spikes. That is why we really appreciate the people who can love us despite seeing our ugly side. But it’s not just for the effort alone. We appreciate such love because such love embraces our whole self – not just a part, not just the mask – but a love which embraces the very core of our being.

But we’re all in a deadlock waiting for someone to do that to us. Everybody’s waiting.

So, to put an end to the deadlock, allow me to get the ball rolling by saying: Thank you for being my friend. I may have experienced, or have yet to experience your spikey side. But rest assured, I may initially be shocked, annoyed, and even hurt – but that will not mean an end to the friendship. I accept you and will still love you as my friend regardless. And I apologise for the hurts which my own spikes may have caused. We just need time to learn.

Let us, with courage, strive for deeper, closer friendships!