Getting the Monkey Off Your Back

by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd

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In the classic story of Sinbad-the-Sailor’s fifth voyage, he encounters a tormenting creature that mounts a man’s shoulders and won’t get off. Sinbad calls it “Old Man of the Sea.” This monstrous creature would trick a traveler into letting him ride on his shoulders while the traveler transported him across a stream, making the traveler feel, at first, like he was doing a good thing. However, once across, the beast would then tighten his grip, forcing his victim to transport him wherever he wished, preventing his victim from rest…eventually riding him to death. In the story, Sinbad, eventually subdues and kills the evil creature.

Sinbad’s “Old Man of the Sea” is a classical archetype, symbolizing all of those things in life that trick us into carrying them for just a little while, making us feel good about doing it at first. Once past the initial stage, these things tighten their grip on us, forcefully driving us to carry them to places that merely make us miserable and sick, and eventually exhausting us to death. Ultimately, Sinbad’s “Old Man of the Sea,” came to be known by another phrase—having “a monkey on your back.”

Interestingly, in the 1860s, “having a monkey on your back” first meant “carrying around anger.” And then, “getting the monkey off your back” came to mean removing or solving a long-lasting problem or situation that robs you of life. Eventually, in the 1930s, “having a monkey on your back,” came to be narcotics slang for “being addicted.”

Most people haven’t given much thought to how much those two things are often related—anger and addiction—to how much of a problem unresolved anger can create in a person’s life. And it’s something we need to be especially careful of, because so much of the world around us is committed to keeping that problem locked away inside us. Just like cigarettes are infused with hundreds of poisonous chemicals that are specifically designed to keep people as addicted as possible…when we look around to America’s current culture of identity politics, it’s also infused with hundreds of poisonous elements that are especially designed to keep us addicted to anger.

We tend to love our rage. Our righteous indignation helps us maintain a feeling of self-righteous superiority…which makes us feel high. That’s because, at first, in the limbic part of the brain (where our fight-or-flight response originates), when anger is nurtured, it’s chemically related to what happens during thrill-seeking, which releases an adrenaline rush, making us feel especially alert and ready for battle. Then dopamine is also released into our brain, helping anger to feel, at first, like its own reward. But like other addictions, the eventual consequences of this obsession are realized as something dangerous. In other words, anger tricks us into carrying it for a bit, until we become so intoxicated from the experience that it eventually tightens its grip on us, addicting us, so that we’ll carry it to places that merely make us miserable and sick, and eventually exhausting us to death. It’s a spiritual illness that often contributes to emotional and even physical illness. It also poisons every relationship around us, leaving no room for God in our hearts.

This is why, on the Sunday evening before Clean Monday, we begin Lent with a special liturgical service called, Forgiveness Vespers. Like the ancient Jews, every day of our Liturgical calendar begins with sundown on the evening before each day. This ties to the creation story, where God begins with chaos and darkness, to which He introduces light and life. So, Clean Monday—and thus Lent itself—begins on the preceding Sunday evening, at a special service called the Forgiveness vespers, which culminates with a Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness, at which everyone present will bow before each of the others and ask for their forgiveness.  We ask for forgiveness, “Forgive me, the sinner” We are offered forgiveness, “God forgives and I forgive” We are asked the same, “Forgive me, the sinner” We offer the same, “God forgives and I forgive.” In this way, the faithful begin Lent with a clean conscience, with each other’s forgiveness, and with renewed devotion to Christian love. The theme of Clean Monday is set by the Old Testament reading from the Prophet Isaiah, in this vespers (1:1-20), which says, in part: “Wash yourselves and make yourselves clean; put away the wicked ways from your souls before My eyes; stop doing evil; learn to do well.  Seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, consider the fatherless, and plead for the widow. Come then, and let us reason together, says the Lord: Even if your sins are as stained as deeply as scarlet, I will make them as white as snow; and even if they are as intensely red as crimson, I will make them as white as wool” (vv. 16–8). 

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In Greece and Cyprus, Clean Monday has traditionally been a public holiday where it’s celebrated with outdoor family excursions of flying kites.  This family kite flying was actually meant to beautifully symbolize how light the soul feels after having gotten that monkey off our back—when we’ve forgiven each other.  And that feeling of lightness from forgiveness also reminds us to set an appointment with our priest for the sacrament of confession/reconciliation, where we can name, out loud, the ways that we’ve let other monstrous creatures (other addictions, like spiritual aimlessness and self-absorption) ride our backs, tightening their grip on us, riding us to exhaustion and to our own destruction.

Has someone insulted you, or hurt you beyond what is possible for any human to forgive? Such miraculous forgiveness is impossible for any mere human being…but not for God. We believe in a God of miracles. Are you carrying within you some bitterness that weighs down upon your life, robbing it of joy? Begin praying now, that God will help you forgive…to let go of that oppressive thing.  Then as time permits, putting on the garment of Christ again…begin compassionately praying, along with Christ, for that person…that God would forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing.  What’s amazing is how much lighter the garment of Christ is than that burden of that bitterness.  This Sunday night, come to forgiveness Vespers to make a solid commitment to this way of life. It’s time to subdue and kill that dreadfully evil creature that’s robbed you of so much life. Then, this Monday, consider taking your family outside to fly kites together and experience the joy of a soul released to soar, free and lightened from the burden of sin!

Whatever you do, don’t rob yourself, or your family, or your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ of this experience of God. Here’s what I mean. An attorney, after meditating on several passages of scripture, eventually decided to cancel the debts of all his clients that had owed him money for longer than 6 months. He drafted a letter explaining his decision and its biblical basis and sent 17 debt-canceling letters via certified-mail. One by one, the letters were returned by the Postal Service, unsigned and undelivered. While, perhaps a couple of people had moved away so that their letters could not be delivered, that certainly couldn’t have been the case for most of them. Nevertheless, 16 of the 17 letters were returned back to him because the clients refused to sign for delivery. Fearing that they were being sued for their debts, they refused to even open the letters to find out what was in them. How profound! God is willing to forgive each of us too, but too many people will not even open evening of Forgiveness Vespers, nor will they schedule the sacrament of confession/reconciliation. Isn’t it time you get that monkey off your back?