normalHere’s the rub: How do you pursue this beautiful dream of community with actual, real-life people? Weird, not-normal, as-is, dysfunctional people? Your friends, your colleagues, your spouse, your children, your parents, your small group, your church, your coworkers? Can it really happen?

The North American Common Porcupine is a member of the rodent family that has around 30,000 quills attached to his body. Each quill can be driven into an enemy, and the enemy’s body heat will cause the microscopic barb to expand and become more firmly embedded. The wounds can fester; the more dangerous ones, affecting vital organs, can be fatal.

The porcupine is not generally regarded as a lovable animal. The Latin name (erethizon dorsatum) means “the irritable back,” and they all have one. Books and movies celebrate almost every conceivable animal—not just dogs and cats and horses, but also pigs (Babe; Arnold Ziffel from the old TV show Green Acres), spiders (Charlotte’s Web), dolphins (Flipper), bears (Gentle Ben), and killer whales (Free Willy). Even skunks have Pepe Le Pew. I don’t know of any famous porcupines. I don’t know any child who has one for a pet.

As a general rule, porcupines have two methods for handling relationships: withdrawal and attack. They either head for a tree or stick out their quills. They are generally solitary animals. Wolves run in packs; sheep huddle in flocks; we speak of herds of elephants and gaggles of geese and even a murder of crows. But there is no special name for a group of porcupines. They travel alone.

Porcupines don’t always want to be alone. In the late autumn, a young porcupine’s thoughts turn to love. But love turns out to be a risky business when you’re a porcupine. Females are open to dinner and a movie only once a year; the window of opportunity closes quickly. And a girl porcupine’s “no” is the most widely respected turndown in all the animal kingdom. Fear and anger make them dangerous little creatures to be around.

This is the Porcupine’s Dilemma: How do you get close without getting hurt?

This is our dilemma, too. Every one of us carries our own little arsenal. Our barbs have names like rejection, condemnation, resentment, arrogance, selfishness, envy, contempt. Some people hide them better than others, but get close enough and you will find out they’re there. They burrow under the skin of our enemies; they can wound and fester and even kill. We, too, learn to survive through a combination of withdrawal and attack. We, too, find ourselves hurting (and being hurt by) those we long to be closest to.

Yet we, too, want to get close. We meet neighbors, go on dates, join churches, form friendships, get married, have children. We try to figure out how to get close without getting hurt. We wonder if there isn’t a softer, less-barbed creature out there—a mink or an otter, perhaps.

And of course, we can usually think of a number of particularly prickly porcupines in our lives. But the problem is not just them. I’m somebody’s porcupine. So are you.

Ortberg, J. (2009). Everybody’s normal till you get to know them. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.