I read a great quote during sabbatical: “The Swahili word for ‘white man’ – Mzungu – literally means ‘one who spins around’.” Here’s what the all-knowing Wikipedia has to say:
“Literally translated it meant “someone who roams around” or “wanderer.” The term was first used in the African Great Lakes region to describe European explorers in the 18th century, apparently as a result of their propensity to get lost in their wanderings in Africa. The word Mzungu comes from Kiswahili, where ‘zungu’ or ‘zunguka’ is the word for spinning around on the same spot. The word was assigned to the first white people arriving in the African Great Lakes because they often became lost.”
I used to love the Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair. The faster it spun, the better. Then I rode it a few years later while I was in seminary and felt like I was going to toss my corndog and elephant ear. A bout with vertigo a few years ago brought an end to my enjoyment of any ride that was the least bit spinny.
The problem with spinning around is that you move a lot without going anywhere. “Circling the drain,” they say. How many of us are “very, very busy” but don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere? Running from this meeting to that event to this child’s activity to that social gathering. Mzungu. “This word was assigned to the first white people…because they often became lost.” It wasn’t just the first ones that become lost.
As I navigate my re-entry from sabbatical, I’m very aware of the places before were I was spinning around, and I’m already feeling the centripetal tug to rejoin the dizzy dance. Not that what I do isn’t important (or at least makes me feel important), or doesn’t need to be done (because it does…right?). But I can already feel my vocational vertigo starting to kick in. So much to be done! So many priorities to attack! So many expectations to fulfill! Mzungu. Lots of spinning around, no forward motion.
So how do we be more purposeful about our movement, making sure we’re advancing rather than spinning? Two guiding questions come to mind. First, does our movement bring us closer to God? In other words, are we becoming more like the person God has called us to be? And second, is someone else benefiting from our movement? These questions can help us redefine our Tilt-A-Whirl of life, helping us to see we don’t necessarily need to stop doing what we’re doing, but remember why we’re doing it.
That meeting I dread going to? The people at that meeting have given up their evening to do God’s work, and look to me to lead them. Oh, and the Holy Spirit just might show up, too. That kid’s activity I feel obligated to attend? Our children may not remember what was going on, but they’ll remember we were there. That rut I feel stuck in? From a different perspective, it may be a groove of grace, guiding us closer to dependence upon God. If we look closely enough, our spinning around actually may be dancing, with God as our partner. I wonder if the answer to our spinning around isn’t to stop spinning, but to step back and remember that God works in three dimensions, so what feels to us like an endless circle may actually be a spiral, helping to move us – albeit in fits and starts – closer to the Us God has called us to be. Forward motion.