In his monthly Flash Pack column, adventurer Ed Stafford explains why travelling apart from loved ones is key to feeling fulfilled and focused – however painful the parting may be
I’m lying in bed in a hotel in Shanghai and its 4:04am. The air con is noisy but I’m not yet used to the clammy temperatures so I’ll keep it on. I landed earlier today from Heathrow and my body is completely out of sync; hence I’m wide awake – thinking.
As a dad and husband I don’t find I get that much time to simply contemplate in everyday life. Spare moments are rammed full of washing up and dirty nappies, and even when I do unwind, it’s often with Laura with a glass of wine. No bad thing – in fact one of my very favourite things in the world – but it’s different to real “me time”.
I’m lucky enough to travel with work. I’m about to embark on a brand new series for Discovery Channel and it’s all being filmed here in China. For me, travel is beneficial on many levels. The most obvious is the experiences I’m going to have, the culture I’ll be immersed in, and the way that will invariably expand my own outlook on life. But that’s not the only reason that I like to get away.
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When I hugged Laura goodbye at the front door yesterday her face was crumpled and she had soggy red cheeks. We both knew I would be away for a large chunk of the next few months. Deep in my gut a knot was slowly twisting; the almost sick-like feeling that acknowledged that I was going to be leaving those that I love the most – Laura and my two-year-old boy, Ran. The physical tear was hard and allowing myself to feel emotions at this point was even harder.
I got in the car and it was already easier. The separation had occurred. I could feel the energy still, but I knew it would dissipate over the next half day and be replaced by intrigue and excitement.
It’s possible for me to do this without guilt as Laura and I have a full understanding of how we want our lives to be. We believe in the harbour model of a family unit. We love our home and our little family more than anything, it’s our core, but we both see the need for ships to sail.
Last year Laura led a world-first expedition to kayak the length of the Essequibo River in Guyana. For over three months I became a single dad juggling babies and household chores.
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I missed Laura, and occasionally drank too much on my own late at night, but most of the time I was fiercely proud to be able to support a woman with such ambition and determination.
So now it’s my turn. After a summer of resting and enjoying each other’s company, I look like I will be pretty much away until December. But lying here in China in the clean and neat hotel room, I also realise that this is a time when I can invest in myself. The luxury of being able to do some exercise and yoga; to meditate and to read a good book are indulgent when I’m so used to parking my own wants to make family life work.
I’m OK admitting that being alone is a reset for me. There has been a lot written recently about hyper-sensitive people, and how they can easily become overwhelmed in large social gatherings. Its fairly common, about a quarter of us fall into this category, but the need to just extract myself for a moment of peace is essential for my mental stability. No matter how much I love those people.
I think when you can pay for your life by doing what you love then you’ve cracked it, and in that respect I do consider myself to be living the proverbial dream. But it is not because I get to shirk all responsibilities and roll around in the mud for a job (not entirely anyway!)
It’s really because I know I am managing to provide for us all whilst I am enjoying myself, staying healthy, and continuing to evolve as an individual.
Even if I was awake in bed at home right now I would not be having the same thoughts. There is something about the perspective that one gets by physically being away from home that allows one to re-assess things, to re-focus, and to dream in an even bigger way. I think this wider traveller’s viewpoint is a vital ingredient that allows us to grow and evolve.
To use a meditation analogy, you don’t solve a problem by incessant thinking. Instead, you step back and observe the thoughts and emotions. In doing so you gain a far greater awareness of not just the problem, but how you are interacting with it. Travel allows me to see my home life and family from the outside – which I find gives me more clarity – and in that space I can make better, non-reactive decisions.
Is being away from loved ones hard? Yes I think if you’re in tune with your emotions and allow yourself to miss them it can be very painful. But even this pain can be seen as a clear indicator that we’re lucky enough to have somebody in our life that we care for that much. It’s a good kind of pain.
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Three more school days and I’m off again filming. Getting my monkeys and parrots ? aligned… ? I’ve got two 6-day breaks between now and mid November in the UK ?? I think but the rest will be in remote parts of China ??. Starting to get excited now I have to admit! ? @vivobarefoot @nuzest @landrover @discovery_seasia @discovery_uk @discoveryaus @discovery @discoverybrasil @discoverychannelin
Is it harder for the person left at home? Yes – I think it is. But it’s the duty of that person I think to look for the opportunities that arise out of the new-found time and family dynamic. Moping or worse, resenting, is toxic and will eat away at the benefits of travel for you both. Everyone has to fully accept responsibility for their choices and embrace the new chapter for what it is.
At the end of the day a life without pain is unrealistic. To try and avoid missing someone by being with them constantly is to shackle yourself to a life of compromise and give up a part of your soul. Next you’ll hear yourself saying, “We really like Ed Sheeran” and spending all day Saturday at fucking IKEA. Man or woman-up to the pain, and support each other in living the fullest and most magnificent lives imaginable.
Main image: Ed Stafford publicity