Back in another lifetime when I was getting certified to become a yoga instructor, my teacher always asked us, ‘Is this a fear that’s keeping you alive or a fear that’s keeping you from living?’ She would pose this question as we hesitated to try a headstand or a handstand. It was a hard question to answer then. It’s even harder now, in the middle of a global pandemic when your most irrational fears could be justified.
In early January of this year I was going insane. We were approaching almost a full year of lockdown here in California, the state with arguably the most stringent lockdown measures in the nation. At the time, all the restaurants were closed. You couldn’t get a haircut. Again. People hissed and crossed the street if you walked your dog with your mask down. I felt like a lab rat in a cage because I was one.
Lockdown fatigue was grinding me down. I was tired of the culture wars, the online bickering, the hateful way we were speaking to one another. I was sick of Zoom AA meetings, baby showers, birthday parties and memorials. I was craving real-life stimulation of any kind. I missed going to museums, live music, the gym. I even missed the hassle that accompanies airplane travel, something I never thought I’d miss.
My brain was atrophying. Being locked up — locked down — was doing strange things to my psyche. I had lost track of time. I felt disoriented. I’d forgotten what freedom is like. It seemed like everyone was forgetting, collectively.
Then one day I realized, ‘Holy shit, we’re adapting.’ Along with many of my fellow Californians, I was developing some form of Stockholm syndrome. My friends kept reassuring me that Gavin Newsom and our leaders know what’s best for us. After seeing the destruction Newsom’s policies have caused my city, my friends in recovery, kids, parents, the elderly and small businesses, and watching most of my friends in comedy publicly lose their minds because they can’t perform, I wasn’t so sure.
How much was the sense of restriction all down to social pressure? Planes were flying. People were traveling. States such as Texas and Arizona had been semi-open since the summer. And here I was like some kinda jerkoff waiting for permission to leave my house after being told again we had two weeks to flatten the curve.
So late one night in mid-January, after finding out my Canadian friend was renting a house in South Africa, I booked two tickets to go visit without even thinking about it. It was like doing a handstand or a headstand; you can’t let yourself think about it, just trust your body and act. My husband was surprisingly chill about my last-minute decision.
‘I know you need to do this,’ he said. He was right. With few exceptions, almost every single person tried to talk us out of going. In the weeks leading up to our trip, well-meaning mothers and family members sent us articles about the dreaded new South African COVID-19 variant which was spreading globally.
Pernicious whispers of fear can be convincing and debilitating. As we approached the day of departure, I felt anxiety creeping in. It hadn’t occurred to me we might get stuck in South Africa with COVID. Then it did. Then my dog needed an eye procedure and I nearly convinced myself it was imperative that I remain home to administer her eye drops.
The airline canceled our flights, so we had to buy new tickets. Then we had to change our itinerary due to the possibility of our layover city shutting down. It was hard to determine if this moment required persistence or recommended acceptance. Maybe the universe was trying to tell me now was not the ideal time to globetrot. But I know BS when I hear it — even when it’s coming from my own brain. And this was fear packaged as reason.
Determination was required. I told my husband: ‘Unless that flight is canceled or I get COVID before we go — I’m getting on that plane.’ And thank God I did. Because if I’d listened to the fearmongering of the media, the government and my own mind, I wouldn’t have seen the African skies. Or the baby rhino and its mother. Or a massive herd of elephants cooling off at a watering hole. I wouldn’t have chilled with lions in a food coma. Or taken a helicopter over Kruger Park or had a braai in the river. Or smelled the rain falling in the distance as the sun set over the bush.
I could have stayed safe and told myself fear was reasonable. It wasn’t.
There is an exhilarating sensation when you master your first inversion in yoga: you overcome your hesitation and defy gravity, and suddenly you’re upside-down, outside your comfort zone, fresh blood bathing your brain, looking at the world from an entirely new perspective. Smiling. Flying. Alive.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s April 2021 US edition.