While reflecting on 2020 with my wife and family, there were memories of difficulty, but more importantly there were memories of successes. How was there success in the middle of a pandemic, political unrest, social change, and violence? This question inspired me to reflect on the “bright spots.”
Before I delve into this question, I’d like to introduce myself. I graduated from Glacier High School before enrolling at Montana State University. While at MSU, I was overly confident with good grades and set to commission as an officer in the U.S. Army. However, in 2016, I began to experience symptoms of ulcerative colitis, a chronic autoimmune disease that involves systemic lacerations to the colon, which leads to fatigue, abdominal pain, frequent bathroom visits, and trials of medication. Soon after, I was medically boarded out of the U.S. Army and thrusted into a position that I never had been before: goalless. Being goalless is to be without meaning and to be without meaning is simply death to your soul and depression.
Here is my advice. In those moments, which you may have experienced in 2020, seek the “bright spots.” Finding the bright spots is to find the things that are working well and why they work. After leaving the U.S. Army, I had a difficult time finding the bright spots. I had lost my future career, no faith, financially unstable and nowhere close to remission. Nevertheless, I did not miss a single class. This was my bright spot. The only thing that worked well was my work ethic. I strived to grow in knowledge every day, even as my health declined. It allowed me to be challenged, gain more experiences, and eventually to serve others.
After realizing my bright spots, I applied as a volunteer for Warriors and Quiet Waters (WQW) – a Bozeman-based nonprofit that uses fly-fishing as a means and an end to support mental health in combat injured veterans. After applying and while working, I received a call from WQW that a volunteer position was available. Immediately, I spoke to my boss, who was reluctant to allow me time off with short notice. Although he permitted me time off, I quit shortly after volunteering for WQW, for this reason: he was a threat to my goals. In life, you must be prepared to defend your goals and bright spots, even at the cost of losing a job.
While volunteering for WQW, I made lifelong friends among men who experienced the horrible effects of combat. I listened to their stories, saw their physical injuries, and prayed for their friends that never made it home. We also shared smiles, laughs, and adrenaline when landing brown trout during the salmon fly hatch. I was at peace with the waters, the fish, the mountains, and I reconnected with myself. Not surprisingly, veterans and volunteers for WQW gain similar emotional and physical benefits. My disease went into remission for the first and only time during this experience. I have never been in remission since.
After volunteering for WQW, I discovered my career and submitted my application for the Master of Occupational Therapy program at the University of Kansas Medical Center and was accepted. Occupational therapy (OT) shares a similar purpose as WQW. OTs have a long history in supporting mental health, veterans, and individuals to bringing life to their days through activities. My experience with the OT profession has afforded me the same joy, relationship-building, service to others, and meaning of life as I did nearly five years ago at WQW.
Today, I am part of the population that is at serious risk for severe illness of COVID-19 by being triple immunosuppressed and having an autoimmune disease. However, 2020 was a year in which I was expected to be a student-OT, officiant, and husband. I chose to continue with my in-clinic rotations in 2020 because I would never have a similar experience to learn practice skills that benefit my future patients. I chose to safely officiate a wedding in 2020 because I was expected to be an advocate for love between two people. I chose to get safely married to my wife in 2020, because I yearned for my spiritual companion.
It is possible to safely pursue your dreams during this time, without stopping your life. This past year has been a time where people have been goalless, and the question remains: does fear of the world lead to your soul’s death? Let me be an example that your goals should eclipse the fear of the world.
So, during the beginning of 2021 and for the remainder of your life, I challenge you to find the “bright spots” and you will become resilient. Finally, I’d like to leave you with this quote from Ernest Hemingway, “The sun also rises.” Please allow me to add this interpretation of the quote: even though the sun can set on one day, it is guaranteed to rise the next. There is always time to change your life for the better.
Daniel Knuffke is a Kalispell native who lives in Missoula and hopes to use his management of chronic disease to inspire others and support mental health.