HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: When there is no Flight and all we have is Fight
Recently my wife and I watched a movie called Downhill, starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis Louis-Dreyfus in the lead roles. They play a couple who take their two kids on a family ski vacation. Early on in the film we see the family on an outside deck at a restaurant looking at the menu when an avalanche occurs. The avalanche is controlled, meaning explosive and structural defensive mechanisms are used as techniques to intervene in snow-packs which can be hazardous to humans.
But in this particular scene, the controlled avalanche presents as a near-death encounter as it heads toward the restaurant and the scene culminates in Ferrell’s character grabbing his phone and abandoning the family, leaving Louis-Dreyfus in the middle of a wave of snow clutching onto her kids. Of course, this forces the couple to reassess their marriage and the scene poses a host of philosophical questions.
The film is an Americanised and more humourous version of the 2014 Swedish original titled Force Majuere. The title takes its name from an existing clause in law that excuses someone from fulfilling a contract when unforeseeable circumstances prevent them doing so.
Of course, in the case of the film, the Force Majeuere clause kicks in as a metaphor for marriage – to be there for each other for better or worse. The avalanche incident can be interpreted by using the clause – that is, the husband was unable and excused from protecting his family because of unforeseen circumstances.
But there’s another argument to be made, an evolutionary one that is more evident in the Swedish version than it is in the American one and that is, the fight or flight response.
Fight or flight can be described as a stress-related response and it’s a psychological reaction that occurs as a response to a harmful attack or when we’re faced with a threat to survival. We either run from it or we fight it and thus, the fittest survive.
By this methodology the film really digs deep into the psyche of the viewer and you find yourself trying to legitimise the abandonment. Isn’t that what all humans would do? Or should we have evolved beyond “each to their own” and should the male lead tried to save his entire family? We’re tied in this argument as much as the couple is. Is looking out for yourself a fatal flaw or is it just an instinctive momentary lapse?
At the time of watching the Swedish film, there was no such thing as a worldwide pandemic, or lockdown where we were confined to our intimate spaces either alone or with our partners and families.
But we only watched the American version, released earlier this year, last week and I found myself applying the same philosophies to a different time in our lives. A time where lockdown rendered a flight response extinct because of limitations on travel, closed borders and so many other implemented rules of isolation. There was nowhere to fly, only to fight.
And the psychological reaction became a one-sided response, but still one thing remained: would our survival under the circumstances manifest in momentary lapses or fatal flaws? Or would those things become one and the same?
We started lockdown with many promises to ourselves. For the duration of level one, for example, before I actually contracted the disease and struggle with it still, I swore that I would use this time to continue to work on my fitness. I would do 100 burpees per day until the worst of the isolation was over. I was not ready to give up on the hard work I had put in for months on carving a fit self. And nothing would stand in the way of that or make me regress.
I wasn’t the only one who made this kind of deal. Other people promised to read all the books they never got to read, or finally get down to writing that book, or make the most out of spending quality time with their families. I have no doubt that many a person with a greater discipline than I actually achieved their goals, but I know for a fact, many didn’t.
Some couples started to question their relationship, for example, mirroring the couple in the movie. The cracks started to show and emerge as craters separating a togetherness into an apartness and lessons in self-survival were learnt. “Life is too short to be stuck in this relationship,” became a mantra for many. Because we couldn’t flee from our problems, we fought with our psyches and looked forward to surviving after the fight was done. I admire that. I admire those profound realisations in whatever form they took and the determination that was exercised to fulfil the fight and emerge victorious. Even if that fulfilment was self-serving.
Doing 100 burpees per day is also self-serving of course, I don’t think I need to define how. I didn’t want to develop COVID-body, which has become a trendy term for how we changed and lazed and lost what we once looked like and what we look like now. It may sound fickle, but I firmly believe that if you feel good about yourself, you feel good about others and the world even. Your self-confidence is more likely to result in positive reactions and constructive decisions. You’ve put the oxygen mask on yourself and you’re more equipped to take care of those who need it.
Statistics show that during the pandemic, the Keto diet became the biggest trend in 2020 with over 25 million people researching it on Google. Intermittent fasting and the Paleo diet came second with a collective 14 million plus searches. An estimated 58% of people used their time to try one of these diets this year, and of that percentage, 32% spent their time experimenting with over three different ones.
I tried to stick to my regular low-carb diet and workout regimen of 100 burpees per day. I think I managed 300 and then it all fell apart. Force Majeure kicked in and I excused myself from fulfilling my lockdown fitness contract because unforeseeable circumstances prevented me from doing so. Admittedly, initially those unforeseeable circumstances were not the fact that I contracted coronavirus.
I had to do what I needed to survive. And what I needed to survive was a bag of Chuckles per day. Not the tiny snack packs. The big family pack. I didn’t eat much of anything else really. But the Chuckles, those chocolate-covered malt balls, were a must and the habit continued into the worst of my virus-ridden days when I had no option but to stay in bed and force feed myself while my eyes were closed from a migraine. The only weapon I had in my artillery for the fight to survive was chocolate. No burpees, no reading books unread, no building the body I deserve.
I survived. I did what I had to do to keep myself sane enough to fulfil my contractual obligation to my family and help them survive too. I put on the oxygen mask of sugar. But now, as we emerge and our flight responses have become more accessible, I have lost that response all together. I am unable to flee from my Force Majeure, too weak to fight the body that now holds me hostage.
I don’t know if all those people included in the statistics I mentioned above managed to stick it out because that’s what they needed to survive, or whether they broke their contracts as well. But what I do know is this: my feelings and the inevitability of the life I now lead and the world in which we live has at least revealed our own fallibility – that we are stranded, as the Guardian review of the movie reads.
And as superfluous as that feeling may be, it’s all we have. For now, at least.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.