Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys
A Sermon to Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
Memorial Day Sunday, May 29, 2016
Circuses Have a Role
I love circuses, and actually have a personal connection with them. When she was a young woman my mother was an aerialist with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. She did something called Spanish Web, where a woman insets her foot into a loop at the top of a fifty-foot rope. She executes a series of acrobatic maneuvers while being spun by a man at the base of the rope, synchronized to music. My mother left the circus to become a professional dancer before I was born, but took me there when I was young and I loved it.
During the Dustbowl in America, and in Europe to this day, circuses and carnivals had an important social role. Not only are they entertainment, they formed a social safety net for people who were disabled or who just didn’t fit in elsewhere. “Running away to join the circus” was something that people did when everything else in their lives fell apart, and the circus took care of its own.
Once you were a part of the “circle of light” as performers refer to their community, people look after you. They had your back, even if you weren’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, or you needed to lie low because the law, ex-spouses or creditors were after you.
There is even a special mongrel language, that circus and carnival people speak to set their world apart. If you are on circus grounds and seem to to know what you are doing, someone will probably come up as ask if you “Farly la Ciazarn?” which means “Do you understand Carnival Cant?” or circus-talk. If they think you are one of them, they will treat you differently. You’ll get a better seat and the games in the sideshow will not be rigged.
There is a show business tradition of wishing performers good luck by saying “break a leg.” Never do that at a circus or carnival as it’s considered a curse. Wish them “greasy luck” instead.
Eastern Europe has a very rich circus tradition with some performers part of multi-generational families that pass down their secrets and skills only to their own blood. In Poland the circus tradition is especially strong and it’s given rise to a saying the I’ve chosen as the title for this sermon, “Not my circus. Not my monkeys.”
The saying arose because it was not uncommon for more than one circus or carnival to be playing in a town at the same time. Performers and utility workers, called Roustabouts, would light up the town after-hours by hitting the bars, brothels and gambling dens. And some of them would get into trouble.
It was not uncommon for the Ringmaster of a circus to be pulled out of bed by the authorities in the wee hours of the morning to bail people out of jail or deal with some problem caused by an escaped animal. Especially monkeys as monkeys are quite mischievous.
As fixing problems like this is expansive, the circus official is always relieved to find out that the problems were caused by people and creatures belonging to some other performing troop. Hence, the saying “Not my circus. Not my monkeys” as a way of saying “this isn’t my responsibility.”
That’s an important thing—knowing what you are responsible for and what you are not. I wish our politicians knew that before involving our great nation in wars of adventure that had no real point. But let me move away from politics. Preaching on politics is the province of the parish minister not a community minister whose work focuses on healing.
As a Consulting Hypnotist specializing in medical work, especially cancer care, one of the most import concept in my theoretical universe is the concept of boundaries.
Some of my recent sermons to this congregation have focused on this concept. They’ve been about the importance of setting limits between oneself and others. About knowing where you leave off and other people begin. About the danger of “overcaring” where you do too much for other people to the detriment of your own happiness and fulfillment.
When I studied with Dr. Bernie Siegel at Yale/New Haven about Mind-Body Healing, one of the things he stressed was that cancer patients in particular seemed to have real problems with this. They routinely put other people first and themselves last. They sacrificed their own self-care for others to a degree that was scary. While it is good to live one’s life as a generous and caring person, there is a line where that leaves off and being the victim of abuse begins. Cancer patients especially were shown not to be very good at figuring out where that line was.
A lot of the hypnotic work I do is to help people who can’t see that line discover it anew and put it back in place, despite the “Change Back” maneuvers of other people.
Every living thing, except one, needs a boundary between itself and the rest of the world to survive. Even a cell needs a cell wall. Even a virus needs a protean shell.
But there is one exception. Only one. There is one living creature that does not need a boundary between itself and its environment. In fact, it thrives where such a boundary cannot be found. That creature is a cancer cell. Alone, among all living things, it is by its nature invasive and transgressional.
Just like the Ringmasters of Old Europe who could dismiss someone who tried to get them to take responsibility for something that was actually someone else’s problem, we all need to know when to say “Not my circus. Not my monkeys.”
Today I want to take a new step. It’s one thing to say you should have limits with others. Today I want to talk about what comes next.
Once you have stopped allowing other people and institutions from siphoning off your energy and depleting you, what do you do next? What is the healthy way to invest the energy you have protected from depletion?
One of the most prized books in my personal library is a leather bound and signed copy of The Alchemist by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. Published in 1988 it quickly became a best-seller and remains in print to this day. It has been translated in 80 languages and has sold more than 200 million copies.
On the surface there is little remarkable about the story. It’s a tale of a Andalusian shepherd named Santiago who journeys from home looking to make his fortune. He has a number of adventures along the way including an encounter with a practitioner of Alchemy.
For those who don’t know, Alchemy was a magical craft widely practiced during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It actually gave rise to the modern sciences of chemistry and physics, but was understood during its time as a spiritual process.
The old Alchemists tried to turn lead into gold and sought to find the Elixir of Life that could cure all diseases. In the story, Santiago finds such a person who has done both.
Modern Depth Psychology has long been fascinated by Alchemy, with the venerable William Jung even claiming that it was the “shadow side” of Christianity. Jung believed that Alchemy had preserved, amid the flasks, test tubes and furnaces, all of the philosophical beliefs Christianity had shed as it evolved into a world faith.
Coelho’s tale ends when Santiago discovers that the fortune he was looking for was not in a distant land. Instead, he returns home to the Andalusian meadows and there finds his treasure in the form of gold buried in the ground, not far from where his sheep used to graze.
This is actually an old theme. Going on a journey to find riches, and discovering that they were actually in the place where you started, is a common trope in mystical literature. It means that opportunities can be found anywhere, if you look for them.
You will find this trope in rabbinical tales. It is one of the more famous of Scheherazade’s stories from 1001 Arabian Nights. You will even find it echoed in the positive thinking literature such as Russell Conwell’s 1869 essay, Acres of Diamonds in which he said “I say to you that you have ‘acres of diamonds’ right where you now live.”
What made Paulo Coelho’s story different was in that in addition to this theme, there are many other themes that people have found attractive.
Coelho is himself a colorful figure. He was misunderstood by his parents who committed him to a mental hospital because they thought his interest in mysticism was a sign of mental illness.
When he got out, he became a song writer for some rather dark Latin American bands, and made a lot of money at it. His interest in the occult let him to a Roman Catholic magical organization called Regnus Agnus Mundi (loosely, The Mind of God Reigns). This organization, RAM, conducts its initiation rituals as part of a 500 mile pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
Coelho wrote an autobiography, called The Pilgrimage, which has also been a best seller and summarizes both his magical experiences on the pilgrimage, and the teachings of that magical organization. It’s a good read if you are into that sort of stuff.
The book titled The Alchemist is full of spiritual teachings. One of the most interesting is the notion of a “Personal Legend.”
It is a bit like Dr. Joseph Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss,” the Personal Legend is the belief that there is a unique path for each person than leads to the unfolding of that person’s destiny.
Coelho believes that we are on earth in order to discover what our Personal Legend is, and then to find a way to make it real in the daily events of our lives.
More than just a “mission statement” for our lives, the Personal Legend is your unique path. Coelho says he is “100 percent convinced” that everyone has a Personal Legend, but that not everyone will figure it out.
“You are here to honor something called the miracle of life,” he teaches. “You can…fill your hours and days with something that is meaningless, but you know that you have a reason to be here.”
You know you have found your Personal Legend when you find a way of living that fills you with enthusiasm. You “betray your Personal Legend,” he says when you fill your time with things that do not give you enthusiasm.
This resonates with me. My own professional mentor in cancer care, Dr. Bernie Siegel, teaches that we each have an inner blueprint. If we live our lives in such a way that we make at least part of the blueprint real, we are healthy and fulfilled. If we live while ignoring that blueprint, we live with a feeling that something important is missing. We will not be as healthy and resilient as we hoped to be.
When I start to work with a client on overcoming cancer what I start with is to help the client subtract the things in their lives that are draining away their residence. Typically, there are relationships that need to change or end, limits that need to be constructed with other people who are actually subtly abusive or too demanding. Then, we turn to the fun part that work, how to use cancer as a turning point to reinvent oneself so you become the person you want to be.
The person who was born to be a poet becomes a stockbroker instead, because that is “more practical.” The person who was created to be a chef settles for working at McDonalds. The person who was gifted with spiritual insight settles for reading magazines and never gets around to sharing with others the wisdom a spiritual power actually placed in that person’s heart.
Sometimes the reinvention of self can be powerful and obvious. Sometimes it is much more modest and visible only to the person him or herself. You learn about this by paying attention to how you feel, by making mistakes and correcting them, until you arrive at what really makes you happy. And then you do that.
That happened to me. I’ve been a member of Countryside Church for 25 years now, but started out as a parish minister. I served two congregations over a thirteen years period and did it well enough. But something was missing. I realized (using a tool I’ll share with you today) that I was not happy with my professional role. I didn’t want to be a religious worker, I wanted to be a spiritual healer. And so my evolution into a religiously oriented medical hypnotist began. We can all begin.
The Stockbroker poet starts to write poetry in the midst of stockbrokering, and maybe gets something published or self-publishes a book that might later become important.
The shift supervisor at McDonalds, figures out that you can make eggs on a hamburger grill and devises a version of Eggs Benedict that is sold everywhere now as the Egg McMuffin (and yes, that is how that breakfast sandwich came to be).
In his 1977 biography Grinding It Out, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc tells the story of a franchise holder in Santa Barbara, California, named Herb Peterson. Peterson, who always wanted to be a chef, had made himself a set of grill rings, and figured out how a version of Eggs Benedict might be made in a hamburger joint. The rest is history. Herb Peterson, a frustrated chef, has gone down into culinary history.
You don’t have to resign from your life and family and go off on a journey of discovery. Sometimes the treasure can be found in your own backyard. You can find out how to be happy amidst the life you are already leading. Sometimes it takes a big change. Sometimes a small change is more than enough.
A Helpful Exercise
For many years now I do a self-assessment exercise taught by one of my therapist colleagues. This is Memorial Day when we pause to remember those who have fought in our nation’s wars, and more generally everyone who we have cared about. It is a day of national reflection, and so it might be a good day to self-reflect and give this a try yourselves.
My custom has been to do this each year on my birthday. Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half lengthwise, creating two columns.
On one side, list all the things that you would really, realistically, love to do. Be honest. List only the things you would do if you could. Things you world be enthusiastic about.
It’s important to know that. Enthusiasm is a gift from God. The word itself comes from the ancient Greek. En-theos. God (theos), inside you. In ancient times the word meant that someone was possessed by a god and spoke with the god’s voice. What you feel enthusiastic about is a sign that points to your Personal Legend.
The key is to be brutally honest with yourself.
For example, I might jokingly think that I’d like to tour the world. However, in fact I really don’t actually like to travel, so a world tour shouldn’t be on my list.
But, I’m a committed foodie, and so touring all the high end restaurants in Chicago, really is something that I would realistically like to do. That belongs on my list.
When you are done. Look at the other column. With total honestly, knowing that no one else is going to read it, write down all of the things you are doing that are not accompanied by enthusiasm.
Then look at the two lists. When I do this I usually decide that it’s time for a cocktail. You’d be amazed how much junk creeps onto that second list. Stuff other people want you to do, things you need to do to stay afloat but dislike doing, and so on. And I do this exercise every year! If you try it for the first time you might want to invest in a second cocktail.
Then do something. Start small, but start. Plan to actually do something that at least points to something that is on the Enthusiasm List. Maybe I can’t afford to tour all of Chicago’s finest restaurant, but surely I can make plans to hit one or two over the next year. Start small, but start.
Then stop doing something. Stop slowly, but stop. Shed something that is on the Unenthusiastic List. You’ve still got to stay afloat, but do you really need all of those things that are using up your energy? Do you really need to help people who actually don’t seem to much appreciate it? Can’t someone else get the kids to soccer practice, at least occasionally. Is that committee really all that important to you? Pull back. Stop slowly, but stop.
If it doesn’t at least point to something on your Enthusiasm List, should you really be doing it at all?
The first time I did this exercise I realized that most of my energy was going to maintain stuff I really didn’t want. Everyone else said I should want all that fragile furniture, all that shiny silver serving wear which required polishing, all those copper pans that also had to be polished. But I was perfectly happy with good cast iron, simple white china and things I didn’t need to baby.
If something doesn’t at least point to what is on your Enthusiasm List, should you really be doing it at all?
Might you be happier if you said “Not my circus. Not my monkeys” and turned you attention to what actually fills you with energy. En-theos. God within. Your Personal Legend.
Don’t base everything on financial gain. The Buddha taught about Right Livelihood. If you are doing what you love it will attract what you need. Look at me. I went and became a hypnotist for gods sake. And it’s working out rather well if I don’t say so myself.
If something would give you enthusiasm, don’t hesitate or look back. If you aren’t sure, consider your choices and contemplate what each choice will bring you. The choice that brings you the most renewal is the right one.
Over time, you will see there is a pattern to those choices and you will discover that your treasure is right there in your life, just like the Andalusian Shepherd Santiago found when he looked in his own backyard.
And that’s my sermon.