Trained Monkeys

It goes something like this: You’re browsing YouTube looking for clips of kitty-cats for your grandchild, catching up on the latest clips from late night or realty contest television, or trying to find instructions for how to actually operate your newest whatever when, all of the sudden, the video link you click on hits a dead end. Instead of laughing through Fallon’s lip-sync battle with JGL or Emma Watson, you’ve been hit by – you’ve been struck by – a 500 Internal Server Error.

The error message apologizes that something has not gone according to plan and goes on to inform you that “a team of highly trained monkeys has been dispatched to deal with this situation.” You chuckle at the cute message, curse your luck, and keep trying to access that one clip of cats responding to errant cucumbers until YouTube gets their act together or you get ticked off and move on to something else.

While the idea of monkeys operating behind the scenes at Google to fix server issues at YouTube is a fun distraction when the site goes down while you’re trying to watch a video that will help you assemble your kid’s new bike at two in the morning on Christmas Day, it nonetheless plays into the ‘everything’s better with monkeys’ trope. And whether it means to or not, this television (and general visual media) trope serves as a reminder that monkeys can be trained.

Look no further than the other side of the world where the Chinese army has enlisted monkeys (you can’t make this stuff up) to work on at least one air force base in Beijing. Apparently, migratory birds have been incredibly problematic in the area, and the monkeys have been an odd, yet effective, last resort for destroying nests and scaring off birds. They work on command, walk on a leash, and only need an apple slice as an award for a job well done. Talk about low maintenance – just as long, of course, as you don’t mind cleaning up after your soldiers and dealing with their often unpredictable temperaments.

Of course, trained monkeys are also a key feature of that classic Americana production known as the circus. Under the shining lights of the big top, generations of circus goers have oohed and aahed in amazement as monkeys, elephants, lions, tigers, horses, seals, and many other animals have performed anthropomorphic tricks at the beck and call of their trainers. Of course, it’s come to light that the treatment of these animals has at times been far less than optimal, but the ability of the animals and trainers working together has resulted in some fantastic showmanship.

Those animals (we’ll stick with monkeys as a representative of the trained animal community) have spent countless hours under the direct supervision of what was most likely one human trainer. For better or worse, the monkeys have formed a bond with that trainer. They will respond to the visual and vocal cues of that individual. If someone else were to step in and try to run the show, chances are that he/she would fail miserable. Now, things may or may not go well were the monkeys simply left to their own devices, but that depends on how well they were trained and how well they know their routine.

Point being, the relationship which is established between a trainer and her monkeys forms a special bond. On some level, the give and take of relationship exists there. Even if the roots of the relationship rely on a system of punishments or rewards, there’s a certain level of trust which is necessary for those monkeys to be trained and to perform on command.

You or I would likely not walk into a circus tent and attempt to work with the monkeys, so why do we feel comfortable doing so when it comes to other peoples’ lives? I’m not comparing humans to trained monkeys, per se; however, it does seem to me that we often have trouble establishing and enforcing proper boundaries in our lives.

Attributed to being a Polish proverb is this phrase you may have heard before: “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys.” I find myself saying it, out loud, on a fairly regular basis.

What does it mean? Well, let’s take that another route. What does it NOT mean? It does not mean that I am, in any way, shirking my responsibility. It does not mean that I am being a bad friend or colleague. It does not mean that I am calling anyone a monkey. It does not mean that I am dismissing the fact that there is a situation at hand which needs to be dealt with; I’m just not the right person to deal with it.

Just because someone has come to you – just because they want your help – does not mean that it’s appropriate for you to jump right in to start putting out fires. If it is your circus, if it is your monkeys, that’s a different story, but it’s not your responsibility to fix everyone or save everyone or jump into every sinking ship to try to bail the water out before it goes under.

Put simply, the phrase is a way to say that whatever situation has presented itself to you is not your problem. This is a way of saying that I am not the ringmaster here. I am not going to attempt to repair something that wasn’t mine in the first place. Besides, I have plenty of my own things to worry about.

I think this is especially true in situations where people want to be bailed out or find someone else to handle their problem. However you look at it, the phrase has great potential in serving as a reminder that I don’t have to get caught up in someone else’s drama. Regardless of whether they’re trying to suck me in or I’m overstepping my bounds and inserting myself into their junk, this idiom may be the way out.

Certified health coach Karen Ann Kennedy has come up with a great list of questions to help us figure out whether a situation truly requires our knowledge and expertise. She says, “When you find yourself getting sucked in to another person’s circus, stop and ask yourself this:

  1. Does this situation really involve me?
  2. If the situation doesn’t really involve me, what is my motivation for getting involved?
  3. What will it cost me to get involved? We’re talking time, money, stress, etc.
  4. Can I really bring something to the table that will help all parties get to a better resolution?
  5. What will happen if I decline to participate in this situation?”

She goes on to say that the bottom line is this: “If getting involved causes you to lose your peace of mind, step away. I guarantee you there are other ringleaders out there who would be happy to jump in and take your place.”

It’s okay to say no. Take the hard pass. If you need permission, you have it. Let people figure out their own junk. Chances are good that if a third party is actually needed and you don’t jump in, someone else will. Don’t feel bad about it. There’s more than enough on your plate already. Focus on your circus, your monkeys.

Ask [God] in your morning meditation what you can do each day for the man who is still sick. The answers will come, if your own house is in order. But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got. See to it that your relationship with [God] is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others.

Big Book p.164

As for what’s going on over there – not my circus, not my monkeys.

– Alex Walker
Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy 

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