We all have days when nothing seems to go right. Most of the time we can keep that in perspective, hoping that tomorrow will be better. But sometimes our kids go adrift and we despair of getting them on firm ground again. With one of my children, there is no margin for error. We recently had a week when she could not be pleased or appeased, when tantrums, tears and disagreements occurred constantly. “Who IS this unhappy child?” I wondered. And then I realized, ah yes, she is in a state of wazi-wazi.
I first learned about wazi-wazi from Gertud Mueller Nelson, a renown Christian educator and expert on family ritual, in her book To Dance with God:
Colin Turnbull, in his marvelous accounting of the Mbuti peoples of Zaire, passes along to us their understanding of the dangers in transition. The Mbuti see the person as being in the center of a sphere. In moving from here to there, the sphere moves too and offers protection. If movement in time or space is too sudden or vehement, we risk the danger of reaching the boundaries of the sphere too quickly, before the center has time to catch up. When this happens, a person becomes wazi-wazi, or disoriented and unpredictable. If you pierce through the safe boundaries of the sphere into the other world, you risk letting in something else which takes your place. If the Mbuti know of and guard against such violent and sudden motion—and that without the experience of automobiles or jet planes—what do we, the so-called civilized people of the world, know of our transitions in space and time? I think we are a whole society in a state of wazi-wazi, beside ourselves and possessed by impostor selves.
I have found this concept invaluable in thinking about my students, my children and myself. Many of my students suffer from wazi-wazi. One normally hyper and joyous student is taken over by a sullen and still impostor when he is faced with work that is too difficult or when he is pushed too quickly. One of my sweetest students, tired from a whirlwind trip and pushed to spell a word a bit too hard, erupted and shouted at me, telling me I had made him spell it wrong. Another suffers from a far more dramatic and long-lasting case. E., a child with autism, was speaking, reading, and writing when a new sibling joined his family. For a while he stopped all language. His sphere had been pierced in what to him was a violent and unpredictable way. But patient and loving parents and going back to the beginning are helping the real E. find his place back into his sphere.
Since I’ve come to understand this concept and what it does to all of us, I have tried to mitigate the jarring effect it has on my child and my students. Future articles will look at ways to help students suffering from wazi-wazi. As I implemented some anti-wazi-wazi techniques, my child slowly moved back into herself. Finally one night, as she fell asleep, she held my hand and told me she loved me. My child was back and the impostor was gone, at least for awhile.