Armadillo or Porcupine: Which are You?

Anyone who doubts whether God has a sense of humor has never seen a platypus. A platypus is an Australian oddity that God created in a moment of boredom by slapping a duck's bill and webbed feet onto a beaver's body. Another version has it that God caught a beaver laughing at a wallaby and decided to give him a taste of his own medicine by rearranging his anatomy. In any event, the animal kingdom teems with such quirks of God's imagination, weirder than any of the space creatures that populate George Lucas' films.

Other animals seem specially designed to teach us humans a lesson, or to show us aspects of our own behavior. We have, for example, the case of the ostrich hiding its head in the sand while the rest remains exposed, commonly referenced when characterizing people who tend to ignore problems rather than facing them. Or the unsavory leech, which literally lives off others' blood. Or the tortoise, elevated to celebrity by the Greek poet Aesop as a paragon of perseverence.

What animal best represents people of today? The two most likely nominees for the dubious honor would have to be the armadillo and the porcupine. The armadillo is a defiant relic of prehistory that has survived the vicissitudes of the millennia by a simple strategy of self-defense. As soon as the armadillo senses danger approaching, it curls up into a ball, safely protected behind impenetrable armor plates. It doesn't expose itself. It doesn't take risks. It lived through the rise and fall of the pterodactyl and the triceratops by a strict policy of non-exposure.

Similarly, men and women today live under a pall of fear — fear of intimacy, fear of the future, fear of commitment. In 1972 John Powell came out with a pop psychology best seller (adopted as a religion text by many schools) entitled Why Am I Afraid to Love? Now, as then, the answer is vulnerability. We are afraid to love because we are afraid of being hurt. Love means opening up, exposing the tender underbelly of sentiments, and the risk of betrayal.

If people were afraid to love in the ‘70s, they're downright petrified today. Why do young men and women wait so long nowadays to get married, if they marry at all? Why so much talk of “protecting myself” and “holding on to my independence?” There are many answers, to be sure, but among them is a profound distrust of others.

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, suggests that one of the greatest challenges facing coming generations is the widening rift of distrust between men and women. He asks rhetorically: “Will women ever be able to trust us again?”

Fear of love doesn't equal fear of sex, of course. The sexual revolution has left few carnal inhibitions. Yet it would seem that the more willing people are to bare their bodies to one another, the less willing they are to bare their souls. “Hooking up” with multiple partners seems to be nothing more than insurance against a deeper emotional involvement, or worse still, dependence on another.

Thus modern society has produced a generation of armadillos. We are tougher than ever, more adapted to survival, but infinitely less human. And if we examine the hard shell closely we discover a sad reality. Those armor plates are nothing but scleroid scar tissue, hardened after numerous experiences of pain like the callused soles of barefoot runners.

The second zoological candidate to represent modern men and women would no doubt be the prickly porcupine. In place of a hard shell, this nettlesome critter is clad in a gown of shimmering quills. But watch out — that beautiful gown is barbed. Not content with mere impermeability, the porcupine takes self-defense a step further and keeps would-be confidants at spine's length. The policy here is to hurt before being hurt, or at least to send a prospective aggressor away with a nose full of needles.

Where does all this leave us? If society is generating more and more armadillos and porcupines, what prospects does this hold for the future of the human menagerie? How do we break out of the spiral of mutual suspicion?

First, distrust is not the product of spontaneous generation; it has real causes. When irresponsibility is rewarded (no-fault divorce is just one example), distrust and suspicion must necessarily follow. If we are to turn the tide of fear and distrust, we must create a culture of responsibility and trustworthiness. We will only lean on each other when we have reason to believe the other won't cave in on us.

Secondly, though much of the problem underlying the shift from interdependence to independence stems from a reaction to pain and betrayal, it also has an ideological component. The modern concept of freedom as autonomy and the repudiation of commitment as antithetical to freedom is inimical to the truth and well-being of the human person. We must recover a sense of freedom as ordered to love and self-giving.

Lastly, we must look to the cross. There, in the perfect expression of God's faithful and unconditional love, we discover our ultimate source of hope and trust. Love begets love, and only by experiencing a love that never fails do we find the courage to love others despite the risks. Only then can our armor be softened and our quills dulled.

Father Thomas Williams is editor of the book Springtime of Evangelization.