You know when someone does something crucial for you, something you’re not even sure you’d be capable of doing yourself, something so grand that you feel you’re indebted to this person? This kind of powerful feeling of indebtedness consumed my life and led me to march blindly in a direction that had nothing to do with my own best interests. But how could I fight it? My parents had left their family, businesses and culture behind in Venezuela to give me an opportunity to have a better quality of life in the United States. The only thing they ever asked of me was to “do well in school, because if you don’t, we don’t have the money to put you through college.” So there I was, a confused, young, culture-shocked, non-English-speaking twelve-year-old tasked with figuring out his life and getting into college without any financial help from his parents. No pressure. My older brother was the first to leave home, and he had set the bar high for me. He had gotten into the best universities in Florida with full rides. It was my turn, now, to show my worth. But when I opened my envelopes to find out my future, every university had rejected me, along with the scholarship applications I had submitted, and my stomach dropped. I felt like I had disgraced my parents, along with all of their sacrifices. I was that guy in the family, the underachieving son who didn’t fit in. The black sheep. Luckily for me, I had a Plan B for proving my worth to my parents. I enlisted in the US Navy.
The Navy gave me a fresh start, an opportunity to right my wrongs. I was relieved to have this opportunity and was grateful for it. To say I was motivated would be an understatement. Every little achievement I got would fill me with great joy, because it was an opportunity to raise my standing in my family. I did this over and over again, hoping to feel worthy of being a part of my family. Eventually, though, these accomplishments began to feel empty, the minor victories hollow. I remember telling my family about one of my achievements. I once told my parents I was the only sailor in my squadron to get promoted, when it was actually a group of us that made rank. I lied just to get more recognition from my parents. But this time it felt different. I was no longer proud of my own hard work. My feats seemed pointless and empty. It was at that moment that I freed myself of these demands to please my parents and began the search for my own, true happiness.
I did the first thing that I imagined would make me happy: I bought myself a mountain bike and drove four hours west from Norfolk, Virginia, into the Blue Ridge Mountains. I did this every weekend I was in port. I was in a new place, alone and disconnected, far from the structure and expectations of the military and my family. Just me, the mountains and my bike. I pedaled into the woods without thinking about where I was going. I didn’t know where the paths were taking me, but I felt alive. For the first time, I was going in a direction that I chose. I followed my own intuition, mine alone. Being in the mountains by myself gave me the time to reflect on what I wanted to do with my life. Whenever I returned to my ship, the Theodore Roosevelt, after my getaway in the mountains, my military duties felt increasingly meaningless and far from my true path. Although I didn’t know at the time what I wanted to do, I knew what I didn’t want to do. I did know that I was no longer going to seek the approval of others. Instead, I was going to seek out where my best interests lay. I knew pedaling aimlessly into the mountains had its ups and downs but also that it was leading me away from the things that weren’t making me happy. It was opening me up to the wonders of life that lay ahead of me.
Daniel Oropeza is a United States Navy veteran who served four years on active duty as a Logistic Specialist. He was stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, working with helicopter squadron HSM-40, and Norfolk, Virginia, aboard the Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71. He now pursues a BS in Environmental Science and a minor in Writing in UC Davis. Daniel loves playing guitar, soccer, photography, and hiking. His ultimate goal is to work for National Geographic. #SoOthersMayWrite #ShowNotTell