■ Management of anger and defensiveness
■ Discrimination skills
■ Mutual, sharing relationships
Once there was a mouse, called Fred Mouse, who lived in a hole in a wall in the corner of the house. One chilly morning as Fred Mouse was eating his toasted cheese sandwiches for breakfast, there was a knock on the wall near the hole into his home. "Can we come in?" called a squeaky voice, and through the hole poked a long, slender nose that Fred recognized as Ernie Echidna's.
"Sure, come in," said Fred, sounding a little more confident than he actually felt. He sure liked Ernie, but he was also a bit frightened of him because echidnas, like hedgehogs and spiny anteaters, have lots and lots of prickly quills, and Ernie's quills always seemed to be standing up, even at the best of times.
Ernie had to squeeze and wiggle his way through Fred's tiny door-hole but, as echidnas are used to burrowing, he finally popped inside . . . and, as soon as he did, up popped his sharp, prickly quills. Now, Fred was one of those friendly sorts of mice that like to give their special friends a big, warm hug to greet them, but Ernie was one person from whom he stood back.
"Can I come in, too?" asked another long slender nose, poking through the hole. "Sure," said Fred.
Emma, Ernie's friend, popped through the hole, too, her prickles standing up like Ernie's. Fred noticed that their quills were quivering. "What's wrong?" asked Fred.
"It's so cold," said Ernie. "The night has been freezing and up on the hillside in the high country where we live it has even been snowing. So we rolled ourselves into a ball and tumbled down the hill as fast as we could to see if we could come and warm ourselves in your cozy little home."
Fred could imagine Ernie and Emma rolling down the hill. You see, if echidnas find themselves in danger, they have two ways of getting out of trouble. First, if another animal is threatening them, they can lift up their quills so that nothing or no one can get close to them and hurt them. Perhaps a bit like when children get angry, it sends a message that clearly says, "Back off or else."
The second thing echidnas do if they're scared looks pretty funny to someone who is watching. They roll themselves up like a ball so that if they are near a little hill or incline they roll down to get away from danger. This is how they got to Fred's house—like a couple of beach balls rolling down from the high country. Fred thought it must be a fun way to get from one place to another.
"Even in our burrow," continued Ernie, "it was freezing cold."
Emma added, "When I tried to get close to him, his prickles stuck up. If only we could cuddle together, we would probably keep each other warm during the night."
"So, we thought we'd come down and visit you," said Ernie. "Your home in the hole in the wall in the corner of the house is nice and snug and not only that, you are also a good friend. We hoped that you might be able to tell us what to do to solve our problem."
It was still early in the morning, and Fred needed to think a while before he answered, so he offered Ernie and Emma some toasted cheese sandwiches for breakfast. They didn't feel as fond of toasted cheese sandwiches as Fred did, so they politely declined, saying they would go sniffing around outside for their own food when the day got a bit warmer. However, they did accept his offer of a warming cup of hot chocolate.
"The first thing it seems to me," said Fred, "is that your bristles serve the real function to help protect you from bigger animals that might set on you and hurt you. That is helpful if a wild dog or soaring eagle begins to think you might make a tempting meal for them. It is important to have them if you want to survive, but how often are you actually under threat like that?" he asked.
Ernie and Emma turned toward each other and shrugged, "Not very often, really," said Ernie.
"And while it is important to have your bristles standing up sometimes," said Fred, "there are a lot of times that you don't need them. I'm just a little mouse and know there is no way I could hurt you, but your bristles are standing up like arrows sticking pointy-end-out of a target. As a result, I keep a lot farther away from you than I really want to . . . and when I would love to give you a hug.
"While some times and in some situations," he continued, "it might be helpful to be bristly, it's not helpful to be so prickly all the time in all places. Maybe you could try to just let your guard down for a little and relax those bristles while you are safely in my home. Nothing or no one is going to hurt you here."
Ernie and Emma tried. They tried hard. They even tried really hard, but their bristles had been sticking up for so long that it was exactly what they kept doing.
"I don't know what else to do," said Ernie. "It feels like this is just what I have always done."
"Close your eyes for a moment," said Fred, "and think that a big lion is coming to eat you."
"But there are no lions in this country," objected Ernie.
"All right then, close your eyes and think about a ferocious, hungry-looking dog, slowly coming toward you."
As Ernie and Emma closed their eyes, their bristles that were already sticking up became even more upright.
"Good," said Fred. "Now think of a safe place or safe time, maybe down in your own burrow on a pleasant day when you've just had a nice meal and can think of relaxing or having a little siesta."
As Ernie and Emma pictured that safe place, their quills began to droop just a little, not too much at first, but just a little.
"Good," said Fred. "Now continue to practice." Fred sounded a bit like a doctor giving them a prescription for some pills. "It might help to practice this every morning as soon as you wake and every night before you go to bed. Practice thinking of situations where you need to have your quills up, and then of safe times, safe places where you can let them down. Stop and ask yourselfifyou need to put them up around each other or friends like me."
A few weeks later when Fred was eating his toasted cheese sandwiches for breakfast one morning, as he always did, there came a knock on the wall beside his entrance hole. A long, slender nose stuck through the hole and asked, "Can we come in?" and in burrowed Ernie and Emma. As their quills were lying calmly down against their bodies, Fred gave them each a big hug without fear ofbe-ing spiked. And they hugged him back.
"The weather has been cold," said Fred, "but you aren't shivering as much as you were when you visited last time."
"No," replied Emma. "Now that we are not as bristly around each other we can cuddle up tenderly and keep each other warm through the cold nights. It is so much nicer."
"Yes," agreed Ernie. "Because you helped teach us that there might be times when it's okay to be prickly and times when it's good not to be, we thought we'd like to teach you something."
Fred wondered what they were going to do as he followed Ernie and Emma back up the hill to the high country. With their bristles down, they taught Fred how to roll himself up into a ball and the three of them went somersaulting down the snowy hillside, flopping into the soft snowdrifts at the bottom, where they all laughed heartily.
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