How one man is making the best of having to work away from home.
Last Christmas was tough for my friend John (not his real name) and his family. He’s the sole breadwinner, and was between contracts, with nothing new in sight.
Then a great short-term opportunity came up—three hundred miles from home. He didn’t like the idea of living away during the week at all. But it was a job . . .
John’s a martial arts teacher, and has sought to move directly into the problem and take control. Here are ten things he’s gained from the experience so far:
It feels like being on a spiritual retreat or adventure
John says sheepishly, You know how Muso supposedly retreated to the mountains after his defeat by Musashi—and gained insight into the nature of combat from the gods. Well I kind of feel like that!
The martial arts master (or other hero) withdrawing to the wilderness to seek wisdom is a powerful archetype. As a family man, John obviously isn’t going to literally retreat into the hills. But he sees the parallels; and is enjoying them in his own modest and realistic way.
It’s giving him practice in choosing how to respond to events
John’s been constantly anxious about his family while away. His fears were realized when his wife suffered an unexpected bereavement and called him in tears mid-week. The feeling of being powerless to help her was almost unbearable. And missing home is not getting any easier for him.
But as Ueshiba Sensei (the founder of Aikido) wrote, Be grateful even for hardship, setbacks, and bad people. Dealing with such obstacles is an essential part of training in Aikido. We can’t always choose what happens to us – but we can choose how we respond, and actively decide to make the best of things.
It’s created opportunities to be spontaneous
When living at home, John’s life is dominated by family routines and duties. But although he frets about his wife’s increased burdens during his absence, he also admits he can’t help enjoying the freedom. He says,
I think as we get older we can lose the ability to be spontaneous. But this feels so good! Just deciding to go and do yoga one day, which is something I’d never normally do. Or visiting random dojos to train. I just wouldn’t have the time normally. It’s good—it feels like I’m actually living some of the Zen principles I always talk about.
It’s been an opportunity to focus on himself
John’s typical day while he’s away now includes a 35-minute bicycle commute each way to work; a workout in the gym at lunchtime; and martial arts, yoga or Pilates most evenings.
He says, Normally I’m always thinking about others. But now I’m getting to spend time on myself, and improve myself physically and mentally.
Having a passion has made it easy to find new friends
John is grateful for his love of martial arts. Like many passionate interests, it’s enabled him to connect with like-minded people in his new town.
He says, The other lodgers in the house where I’m staying don’t do anything in the evenings—they just come home from work and sit in watching TV or whatever. I’m lucky to have something that helps me to get out and meet people in the evenings.
It’s an opportunity to expand his martial arts knowledge
Being in a new place, with countless dojos to explore is proving exciting. John has visited some once or twice, and trains regularly at a couple of others.
This has enabled him to see how other styles and clubs do things differently; and compare and contrast it with his own knowledge. It’s also an opportunity to see how other teachers run classes and relate to their students; how they warm up; how they organize the dojo and so on.
It’s enabling him to deal constructively with tough mid-life emotions
As we age, it’s normal to reflect on our limitations, the chances we’ve missed, and our mortality. But this doesn’t have to lead to personal crisis. Carlo Strenger and Arie Ruttenberg argue that: the midlife years can be a period of unprecedented opportunity for inner growth.
The changes John has made while away have been simple. They’re directed at self-improvement as an end in itself, rather than leading him away from his stable family life in any way.
In John’s words, Don’t be scared of feelings that might trigger a mid-life crisis. If you’re self-aware, it doesn’t have to be a crisis. I think it’s good for someone of my age to take the time to reflect and work on themselves.
It’s been good to experience being isolated and having to take care of himself
John says it’s been challenging but positive to experience aloneness. It’s like “The Island” with Bear Grylls! You’re fending for yourself, and if anything goes wrong, you’re alone. I worry about ending up in hospital up here.
There’s also the sense of handling emotional isolation— the parts that phone calls and texts from home can’t reach. But as John says, It’s made me realize I need to be comfortable with myself.
It’s given him time and space to reflect
In John’s words, Every day now, I take 30-60 minutes just to think about things. About my relationships with my wife and kids. My plans to change the future when I get back. I think about martial arts techniques; and about exercises I want to do, to change myself physically.
Again, it’s like that thing about the old masters going out into the hills, or Musashi in his cave, writing his books and seeking enlightenment. I always knew I had it in me to improve things, but it was about getting the chance to do it.
It’s been an opportunity to let his students grow in his absence
As well as feeling guilty about leaving his family behind, John also worries about letting his students down, and about his dojo fading away in his absence. Again though, he’s chosen to focus on the positive side, and has delegated the teaching to senior students.
He says, It’s good for me to let go of some of my control—I know I tend to over-manage. I don’t want them to run the classes indefinitely, but will take stock when I get back—see where they’ve got to—and take it from there. I want them to grow.
John knows how lucky he is. In a way he is getting the best of both worlds, with a loving family at home to return to each weekend, and a fixed short-term limit to his time away.
He says thoughtfully, I wonder if they could set up retreats for working people? Not like a normal retreat where you’d have to take the time off work and hole yourself up somewhere, and not be able to earn any money. But something like this, where you can carry on earning and caring for your family, but just also take some time for yourself while you’re doing it . . .
There are no easy answers to balancing family responsibilities, with the need for time to work on yourself. But there may be partial, imperfect, time-limited answers; and without realizing it, John may just have ended up with one of these.
Acknowledgement: Everybody needs a little time away is the first line of the Chicago song: Hard to Say I’m Sorry
Also by Kai Morgan
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