A young man, aspiring to become enlightened, was climbing a steep mountain path one day when he came across an old monk carrying a heavy sack. With nothing more than a glance, the young man could tell that this old monk had achieved enlightenment, his awareness, his presence, his inner peace emanated from below the woven sack.

“Sir … I can see from the look on your face that you possess the inner peace I seek … please, can you tell me, what does it feel like to achieve enlightenment?” He asked the old Monk once he was within earshot. The monk nodded his head with a smile, but didn’t say a word. Instead, he simply lowered the heavy sack to the ground and slowly stood up straight, stretching and smiling, joyful to be free from the burden.

“I see … but … what comes after enlightenment?” The young man asked next. The monk smiled and nodded again, before hunkering back down and hoisting the heavy sack back onto his back and continuing on his way.  

Two years ago this month, my wife and I piled what was left of our belongings into a “Pod,” locked the doors of the house we called home in Massachusetts, and set out for Georgia. Our plan was simple: to find a simpler life we could enjoy.

Months earlier, she had moved to upstate New York, some five hours away, to care for her terminally ill mother. I had just graduated with my bachelor’s degree a few months prior, and through a bit of excellent luck, had secured a comfortable corner office gig as the regional HR manager for a aerospace defense contractor. I hated the job, but the pay kept us afloat, helped out with bills up North, and filled my tank to make the five hour drive each Friday night to see my wife and spend time with her family, who over the years, had become mine as well.

It was a trying time for both of us, and when her mother passed away, comfortably in her own living room as she’d always hoped, Jamie, her step-father, and I sat there in the room alongside her for hours, waiting for the one ambulance in the area to arrive. When it did, one man (clearly not a paramedic) emerged and with a bit of trepidation, asked if one of us could help move Jan’s body. This was not a job for a daughter, nor was it a job for a husband. Before any discussion could begin, I stood and asked them both to leave the room for this part. It wasn’t the first time I’d helped move a body, and I knew all too well how strange it can be to see the shell of a person you once knew in that state.

Jan’s passing was tragic, but as she left this world, she granted my wife and I one more parting gift: perspective. Two weeks later, with most of our belongings in a dumpster, we set out for Georgia, where the cost of living was lower, and I had a brother that had opened his guest room to us. Once settled, I’d take my shot at writing for a living, and Jamie, who had previously been a high-paid technology recruiter for companies like Raytheon, would take over nanny duties for my nephew. At the time, we were under the impression that we might not be able to have kids of our own, and in her mind, it was a great opportunity to play a positive role in another child’s life.

But most important of all, it was to be a less stressful lifestyle. We weren’t going to let how much money we made dictate our happiness anymore: we were going to live within our means, and find joy in the simplicity of life.

That first year was difficult in a lot of ways: I made very little money while working constantly, and despite her experience working in daycares when she was younger, Jamie learned quickly that keeping up with a toddler isn’t all fun and games – but we were invested in the change, and to be honest, we were happier than we had ever been in our offices back up north. Soon, I landed a great job (working for SOFREP) and she announced that she was pregnant … something we had both all but given up hope on.

Today, as I write this piece, my daughter is asleep on my lap, my beautiful wife is taking a nap on the couch, and there are a handful of messages sitting in the inbox of my Facebook page from aspiring writers, asking for advice – because somehow, someway, I’ve managed to luck myself into a fair amount of success in the past two years. By every measure, I’ve already succeeded in accomplishing what I’d hope to manage in a lifetime: writing for an audience of thousands (tens of thousands, in fact), with a perfect baby, a wonderful wife, and my pajamas on.

Skin deep, I’m happy, happier than I’ve ever been in my life … but just below the surface, there’s a darkness looming. It’s a familiar one, one I thought I’d left behind: a nauseating combination of stress, shame, and sadness. The truth of the matter is, no matter how many miles I cover, no matter how many articles I write, and no matter how perfect my family is, I can’t get away from my demons … because they’re a part of me.

We tend to look at our life goals as finish lines, as though finishing college or landing a good job will grant us enlightenment, freeing us from our worldly concerns and propelling us into a new form of living. The thing is, not even enlightenment works like that. You may experience the joy of achievement, but when it passes, there’s nothing left to do but hoist the burden of life back up, and continue on that mountain path.

I still feel like a charlatan, a writer that’s lucked his way into a room full of professionals and is only counting the days until the jig is up and you, the readers, lose interest in what I have to say. I still sit up at night, thinking about Lance Corporal Shane Ellis, who hung himself only hours after we talked about his future in the Corps.

I still remember brushing off my close friend Kristen when she reached out to me late one night a few years ago. “Can I hit you back in a few?” I asked her as I slid a frozen pizza into the oven.

“Sure.” She replied.

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I also remember waking up the next morning to learn that she’d ended her life soon after we spoke. I’ve lost four friends to suicide, but none closer, none harder, than her.

These and a hundred other old recollections of what a piece of shit I am persist in my mind, no matter how many views my articles get, no matter what new title the SOFREP editorial team honors my efforts with. No matter how hard I work, no matter how much I try … I’ll still always be that guy that wasn’t there when they needed me. I’ll still always be the same old Alex. I’m grateful for my success, I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given … and somewhere, deep down, I’m certain that I don’t deserve any of it.

But then, that’s the point of this piece. When I was leaving the Marine Corps, I was terrified that I would never find my way … but I did. When I was leaving my corporate job, I was terrified that I’d never be able to support my family, but here we are. In my life, I’ve set some lofty goals – and through hard work (and lots of support from my family), I’ve achieved many of them … but as darkness falls over the woods of Georgia and I’m left alone with myself, it isn’t those victories I recall. It’s my failures. And boy oh boy, is there a long list of them.

I don’t have any advice for aspiring writers: hell, I still am one. I do, however, have some life advice for everyone in general … Chase your dreams, work hard to achieve them, and with a bit of luck and support, you might find yourself accomplishing every last one of them, but don’t make the mistake of assuming life will feel different after you’ve done so. You’ll still worry about the electric bill. You’ll still wonder if you’re making good choices. You’ll still be haunted by the people you’ve let down. Being okay, it turns out, is on you to find, It doesn’t find you after an awards ceremony.

Happiness is a complicated thing. I’m honestly not sure if it exists outside of momentary bursts of joy that manage to drown out the sound of life’s responsibilities and stresses … but if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that you need to attack being happy with the same kind of effort you use when working toward other goals. That new job isn’t the key to your happiness, you are. A different job might help, a different town, or a even a different life … but no matter where you go, no matter what you do, you’ll always still be you, deep down inside. You have to make peace with that, before you can find any sort of enlightenment. Happiness isn’t the byproduct of your other endeavors: happiness is the endeavor. You’ve got to work for it. Don’t assume it’ll be waiting for you at the finish line … because there is no finish line at all.

We all feel like imposters. We’re all haunted by something. A new house, a new job, even a winning lottery ticket won’t change that. The only thing that can … is you.

There I was, a young man, aspiring to become enlightened, and climbing a steep mountain path one day …

Feature image courtesy of the author