My IKEAfghanistan Moment

Scroll down ↓

6:32 pm. Saturday night. My head is pounding…

I’ve wanted to sleep since noon. But a full day of family gatherings kept me soldiering on. And, now, as I pinball my way through the sea of people crammed along the endless meandering furniture bound path known as IKEA, I’m contemplating popping a cap in the slow moving guy’s ass in front of me and wondering if it’s actually possible to get road rage while shopping for a dining room table.

What feels like hours later, now melting and sweating through two layers of winter coats, we finally arrive in the car and I start the drive home. I’m in a pissy mood.

But, a few minutes in, once we hit the highway, everything changes…

Thoughts return to the conversation that moved me from room to room in a century old mansion just off Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. My 23 year old cousin had just returned from a nearly 4 year tour as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan. He still had a bit of time left, but he was on a few week’s leave after a series of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) had torn into his vehicle and left him with a concussion…three times.

When he arrived in Afghanistan, he told me, it was 130 degrees and his gear weighed close to 100 pounds. In Iraq, he said, when the sandstorms came, it looked exactly like it did in the movie The Mummy. A billowing wall of superheated airborne sand tumbled in like a massive wave. Afghanistan, he said, was different. There was a thick haze of dust that just never left.

He’d sweat pounds of water into his clothes every day and the sand would blend with sweat to form a crust around him. There was no escaping it. Sometimes for days. Out with his unit on patrol one night, he was trailing with his NVGs (night vision goggles). One minute he was walking along, another he was falling into a black well, stopping his descent by wedging his body against the walls, chest deep in watery muck. He didn’t want to know how much deeper it went. Screaming, his buddies came back and pulled him out.

It wasn’t unusual for him to go a month or more in this state, without a shower or change of clothes.

Not long before arriving home, his mom told my wife, he’d seen a friend in his unit blown apart when he stepped on a IED. One minute he was there, the next, gone. We talked on and off for hours. He shared what he’d experienced. Never once did he complain.

And, here I was, bitching and moaning about the headache I’d developed spending too much time blogging that morning, my tired body (I stayed up later, then woke up at 5am with an idea for a post), and how the slow moving traffic at IKEA was harshing my mellow.

As I drove on, I felt like a total ass. Indeed, I was.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in what you believe to be your own private momentary hell.

To give importance and attention to things that seemingly aren’t breaking your way. Things that, reframed in the context of what actually matters in life and what others have to endure on a daily basis, don’t even rise to the level of remotely trivial.

Thank God I had that conversation with my cousin, lingering, giving context to my so-called bad day.

Moments like that deliver much needed perspective, they snap us back to what matters, to how incredibly fortunate we are and to how small those breaths of discomfort really are. They give us the space, the clarity to reframe, to consciously choose to flip the switch from pissy and tired to grateful and alive.

I wonder if you’ve had moments like this? I wonder if you’ve discovered the ability to create this same spontaneous shift in mindset, without needing the occasional whack in the head as I do?

It’s something that’s very much on my mind…and my plate, as I prepare to embrace and expand my life in the year ahead.

And, as I seek to serve as a living example for my daughter.

So, what about you? Have you had these experiences?

Moments of extreme contrast that snap you back?

As always, would love to learn from your thoughts and insights in the comments below…

Join our Email List for Weekly Updates

And join this amazing community of makers and doers. You know you wanna...

47 responses

47 responses to “My IKEAfghanistan Moment”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, Frannyo. Frannyo said: RT @jonathanfields: My IKEAfghanistan Moment… […]

  2. […] This post was Twitted by Frannyo […]

  3. Joe Jacobi says:

    Few things bring perspective, humility respect and instant re-focus into our world like conversations with soldiers who are spending/have spent time in Afghanistan or Iraq. Our little world of kayaking, which I had always considered an excellent paradigm shifter, has had an incredible awakening via Team River Runner, a kayaking instruction program for wounded vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq ( And one more for you, Jonathan – when you have a few moments, check out this ESPN story of one of those vets who went on to represent USA Canoe/Kayak at the World Championships this year – you’ll wear your USA Canoe/Kayak with a new sense of pride:

  4. What a wonderful post and so fitting too. It really does put things into perspective.

    We will be watching a repatriation ceremony today (

    Since we live at CFB Trenton, I can watch the whole scene from my bedroom window which has a view of the tarmac where the ceremony will take place.

    To you, and to your cousin, Semper Fi

  5. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jonathanfields: My IKEAfghanistan Moment…

  6. What a powerful story Jonathan. I actually find myself ‘snapped back’ as you say, every time I speak with or visit my parents and sister. Not only are their lives extremely difficult with multiple physical and mental health challenges, they are hopelessly ‘glass is half empty people’. They provide a built in appreciation switch that lets me see how lucky I am to have a healthy family, work that fulfills me and an ability to see all that is good in my life.

  7. Werner says:

    That fresh slap of perspective can serve you throughout your life. As a point of reference it puts balance to what you are going through at any given moment.

    I learned this a long time ago.

    I have a deep interest in WWII and the vets who fought it. I’ve talked with hundreds of them over the years.

    Whenever I find myself in a situation similar to yours, I remind myself of the unbelievable experiences these men had to live through – and live with – all of their lives. It puts EVERYTHING else into proper perspective. There is much to learn about life from a combat veteran.

  8. Jonathan,

    My father was in the first marine division in WWII. He fought at Guadalcanal. He used to tell me stories when I was little about the war and the terrible things that happened there. He never romanticized it like others might; to him it was a very difficult time.

    But that was a long time ago; my father died many years ago. I don’t think I realized until recently, upon the birth of my first child, just how self-sacrificing parents can be when they have to be. We all do it, but to fight and die in a war halfway around the world so your kids can live free is truly the ultimate sacrifice.

    We can never repay it. But we can all try.


  9. Mark Silver says:

    I can so relate, Jonathan. I get caught up in the same stuff. When I worked as a paramedic, that provided such a great sense of perspective for the same reasons.

    It can be really challenging to remember what’s really true. And, as one of my teachers told me years ago, “It’s not ‘How do I remember?’ It’s ‘Are you remembering?'”

    Sigh… I wish the best for your buddy and his healing from those experiences. I just did some work on my own PTSD from being a medic, and I got to go home after every shift, and was (rarely) in any physical danger myself.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Mark – love this addition to the conversation – “It’s not ‘How do I remember?’ It’s ‘Are you remembering?’” Gonna ponder that for a bit.

  10. […] This post was Twitted by RockYourDay […]

  11. My brother’s first child was born blind and developmentally disabled. His wife has ALS. They have three other children under the age of 10. He’s out of military on disability pay from all kinds of crazy injuries.

    Despite all that, they’re a happy family. His wife is one of the most unselfish and positive people I’ve ever seen, even as she deteriorates from ALS. It breaks my heart to even think about what’s going to happen with them. All I know is I’m going to help them any way I can.

    I have zero fucking problems compared to that.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Wow, thanks for sharing that Michael. When I was putting together my recent roundup of inspirational videos, I added in the now famous Lou Gehrig speech where he shared how he felt he was the luckiest man alive even though his career had ended from ALS. Blown away by how people endure so much adversity with so much grace.

  12. An odd parallel story – I was getting waxed the other day and it was the full body kind that takes a super long time. So of course I talked about my upcoming move from CA to CO with the waxing lady.

    I’ve been a little stressed about the move, but my whole perspective shifted when she talked about how fortunate I was to have the freedom to go wherever I want.

    Sure, she moved here from Romania, but now she feels totally stuck. And I could hear from her words that she is. She is not stuck by her circumstances so much as her thoughts and beliefs. She’s traveled all the way here from Romania and now cannot go further. The only possibilities she can consider is staying where she is (unhappy marriage in a town with no family) or maybe going back to Romania.

    In that instant, I became so aware of my freedom. Sure, I’m stressed about the move, but I’m free as a bird and it feels phenomenal!

    Can I make these shifts on my own without the whack up side the head? Not usually. Fortunately, the Universe is constantly providing me with well-timed, gentle whacks. 🙂

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Alexis – yup, the Universe does seem to be oddly able to provide me a well timed whack just about every time I need it, too. Hoping that with a deeper committment to a mindfulness practice in the year to come, the whack’ll ease into more of a daily contemplation. Though, I have my doubts, lol.

  13. Whymommy (Susan) says:

    Two years ago, I fought Stage III cancer and nearly lost my life. Now, whenever I’m feeling particularly petty and grouchy, I remember all my friends who didn’t make it, and how very much they would want to be in my shoes right now. Then I buckle down and get back to work.

    My cancer-fighting friends and I write together over at MothersWithCancer. Feel free to sto by sometime — we love company and encouragement!


  14. Oh man, does this sound familiar – just today, my wife and I in Galeries Lafayette in Paris, looking for a piece of luggage that I really didn’t want to buy, but needed to because of the new TSA regulations. The place was hot and packed with tourists. I was miserable. Poor, poor me…..

    But wait – I was in Paris, for God’s sake. My dream vacation. I could handle this for 30 minutes, right? These new TSA regulations are meant to protect me. And my beloved wife, who has enjoyed this trip immensely.

    And then there’s that soldier in Afghanistan. Your story really helped “sober me up”. Good timing, my friend! 🙂

    All the best,

  15. Yes, I do this all the time. Sometimes a reality check when I’m caught up in a poor-me moment is to remember that my life is 10 million times better than most of the rest of the world.

    My boyfriend spent four years in the military and his experiences have forever shaped my sense of gratitude for what I have.

    As I go for my 55 degree, very windy walk today I’ll keep perspective that at least I’m not shoveling a foot of snow off my doorstep like my brother in Conneticut.

    Great post, thanks.

  16. Niksmom says:

    Thank you for this timely reminder for all of us to keep life in a bigger focus, a greater perspective. As the parent of a child with multiple special needs and developmentla delays, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily frustrations and challenges. When I do that, I find myself remembering the 209 dyas we spent in the Intensive Care Nursery at a major metro hospital on the west coast. What I personally witnessed there leaves me humbled and grateful every single day for the life I have, for the child I am able to hold in my arms and tuck into bed each night.

    I carry my reminder in my heart and can see it in my mind’s eye all the time.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Wow, as a dad, I have to admit to sitting here reading your comment one deep breath away from tears. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  17. Naomi Niles says:

    When I’m having a hard time, I think often of my step-brother who spent two terms in Iraq. He never complains either, but I can’t imagine what he went through. What impresses me most about him though is his genuine desire to take care of people. I’ve never seen someone who has been through so much with an attitude like his. It’s humbling.

    However, Ikea torques me off too, lol. I hate that they make you go through the whole store to buy one thing. It probably makes them a lot of money, but I’ve got better things to do with my time than meandering through the store for 3 hours.

  18. Jonathan – my father spent 20 years in the British Army and saw service in Suez, Malaya and Borneo and I have to say I am so proud of him and what he did.

    I was trying to explain to my son, who doesn’t agree with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that regardless of the politics you have to admire and respect the ordinary men and women who do extraordinary things on a daily basis and risk their lives in desperate conditions.

    I wish the British politicians shared this respect and made sure that our troops had the equipment that they need.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Jonathan, I’m glad you brought this up in your comment. The focus of my story wasn’t about whether we should or shouldn’t be at war. That’s an entirely different, yet still very important conversation. It was really just about momentary experiences or opportunities to reflect on how fortunate so many of us are.

  19. Jonathan:
    Just yesterday I had breakfast with a friend who is 36 years old. Her husband, who was 38, died unexpectedly in February due to complications from an illness. To listen to her talk about these past 10 months – her fears, her strength, her resolve to keep moving forward – make anything that’s bugging me in my world pale in comparison. Thanks for the second reminder in two days to always give thanks for my very good life!

  20. Tom Meyer says:

    Thank you Jonathan. Please send thanks to your cousin for all that he has done for our country. May his New Year be Healthy and Prosperous. His sacrifices and those of our armed services are greatly appreciated. Best to you and yours in the New Year!

  21. Seven years ago I turned my entire life upside down to be with the person I love most in the whole world.

    Four years ago I was standing in a hospital room with a doctor telling me she wouldn’t live through the night. (She decided otherwise.)

    One year ago complications from four years ago required another life-saving emergency surgery.

    Two days ago was our anniversary. We spent the day doing some fairly normal things—but we were within arm’s reach of each other all day. We talked, non-stop, for 14 or 16 hours.

    Every single day that I wake up in the morning and I’m not alone is a miracle. I suspect that, eventually, it will require an effort, a slap upside the head, to remind me that nothing, not one single thing, in my life is worth whining about.

    But, right now, every single day is a miracle and that thought completely washes out the little niggling nothings that, in my old life, would have felt like being nibbled to death by ducks.

  22. Michael Roth says:


    Apologies in advance because I am not sure I am going to be very articulate here.

    Having been a combat medic, a firefighter and having had a son die has given me a great deal of perspective on what is and what is not worth getting worked up about.

    Having that perspective can be dangerous.

    Now that I am in the IT field (less dangerous line of work), a lot of my collegues (and bosses) interpert my not running around like my hair is on fire, stressing over stuff, as an indication that I don’t care or that I am not concerned about things. A lot of people seem either to enjoy the stress (or never developed the tools to deal with it) and get angry at people who do not engage in the same behavior. So it is like there is a resentment because I do not act the same way (which I must admit I view as childish) of getting angry or throwing tantrums or other acting out.

  23. Mirko Gosch says:

    Dear Jonathan

    I am so grateful being able to connect with you and your fine readers on your blog. My thanks go out to you and all the commentators for sharing your uplifting stories.

    For me it is always a kind of a healing process to put my own little troubles (and the big ones too)in perspective and realize how fortunate we are!

    E.g. we communicate without boundaries between Europe and the US in front of our fancy computers while there are people sacrificing their lifes to the freedom of speech and to the freedom to just express their opinions in countries like Iran at this very moment.

    And although I have never served in my countries army and although I am no “fan” of the millitary in general, I too do honor those brave women and men who serve our countries in far away and hostile territories. We all owe them a lot!

    Thanks again and may you all have a brilliant day


  24. Maggie Mae says:

    I used to need the slap upside the head… Then I had identical twins with Down syndrome. Though our lives were turned upside down, it’s nothing compared to others whose children suffer extraordinary medical and emotional difficulties. We saw them every day in the NICU and hear about them in the support groups we belong to. My boys are miraculously healthy despite their lifelong diagnosis and the issues that usually accompany that diagnosis. While most people pray for me, pity me and wonder how I do it, I have absolutely no complaints. I am more than blessed! Any one of us is but a moment away from unimaginable difficulties or death. My life is extraordinary and I know it every second of every day as I look into the eyes of my beautiful children!

    Please thank your cousin for me. I am appreciative beyond words for the soldiers who fight for my freedom so that I can be home to take care of my beautiful little boys.

  25. It really is our work in the world, as the LF’s (lucky fucks, my friend’s phrase for all of us who can read this, own a computer, have freedom to make money, freedom to vote, running water, nobody banging down our door to kill us) is to remember how lucky we are AND then do something about the bad stuff.

    Without by passing or diminishing our own suffering in the world – our pain is real but must be kept in perspective. And by pain, I don’t mean holiday crowds.

    Love this and am grateful for the reminder!!

  26. Jonathan,

    I found this post especially relevant first because I was meandering through IKEA too on the day after Christmas with my youngest daughter who was looking for furniture for her new apt when she relocates for a new job. IKEA was not my idea of the best use of my time, even with the free (a smaller version of their usual 99 cents one) breakfast, but because I’m older than you and have survived many needless battles with kids, I was just happy that she and I enjoy being together. (She’s even paying for her own purchases. Yippee!)

    The contrast: When I returned home to whip out a few blog posts offering New Year’s tips I had to catch myself when my first tip was about taking a walk everyday for exercise. Bam! It hit me fast. Not everyone even has legs, much less can walk. How selfish to create advice that focuses on what I take for granted.

    If we are fortunate we can learn, grow, be more sensitive and caring without having to experience devastation and horror for ourselves. My daily goal is to be grateful for what I have and more understanding and nonjudgmental of those who don’t.

    • Karen Wallace says:

      Four words: “needless battles with kids” gave me the slap I needed today (thanks for that). I have way too many of those with my own two teenage sons at the moment, and I resolve right here and now to pick my battles with them more carefully from now on. Rolling the notion around in my head I realise that I sometimes have a bit of a victim mentality where they are concerned – they do stuff (to-annoy-me-and-make-my-life-difficult). Meanwhile they are just doing stuff period. Being in the world. Finding out how it works. Mmmm, who says you can’t learn from the mistakes of others. Thanks again, Flora.

  27. Randy says:

    Perhaps I’ll get harassed for this post but I’m willing to take the chance.

    You suffered in the line partly because it was a surprise.

    Your cousin’s job is extremely hard, no question, I could not do it for 5 minutes but he’s also been trained for it and he knows how many hours, days, etc. he has to do it…like the story of Sisyphus.

    I think Sisyphus was happy because he had certainty and I think your cousin could pull off that David Blain-esque feat because he uses that same mental loophole to happiness.

    When we are stressed discomfort gets magnified and our problems completely fill whatever mental space we’re willing to allow them. (We spiral when things get tough…especially when they’re unexpected.)

  28. Janet says:

    I got a lifetime of reminders to be grateful while working in the head injury unit at a hospital. I think about those experiences every single day because by interacting with the families of patients, I learned that your entire world can turn upside down in an instant. I do my best to stay thankful when a day is filled with normal every day challenges rather than anything catastrophic. Great post, Jonathan.

  29. George says:

    Wow. What a great story. Thank you.

    I often think about how we spend every day, living in a safe, comfortable environment, while thousands of Americans are putting their lives on the line to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. I feel so grateful to be protected by those who are willing to risk their lives so that we can go through our day in safety.

    Many people say that we shouldn’t be meddling in other countries’ affairs. That’s not for me to decide. Regardless of whether we think they should be there or not, they selflessly endure heat, sandstorms, and the constant danger of being shot or blown up. I think everyone in America benefits from this incredible service.

    Thanks for sharing. It really got me thinking.

  30. 3dogMcNeill says:


    It’s hard, as Randy (above) said about not letting our discomfort get “magnified and our problems completely fill whatever mental space we’re willing to allow them.” Like others above, I served as an EMT, as a Marine, and am a first-time mom of a healthy 8-month-old who was born several weeks premature. Though I’m only in my 30s I’m finding that age and experience are helping me learn how to minimize my “mental space” so I can put things back in perspective before they get out of hand. (Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose but more often than not I’m winning).

    Maybe this will also come with increased age and expanded experience, but what I struggle with the most right now is what I think Michael Roth (above) was talking about, what I call “the drama” in others around me, specifically at work. I have a really hard time dealing with/responding to and mentally and emotionally thwarting my coworkers’ losses of perspectives.

    I think for the first time ever in my life, I’m embarking on a concerted effort to keep my perspective anchored, like Susan, Niksmom, Joel, Maggie May, and Janet (above) apparently do.

    So I guess this is my way of saying thanks for adding to the stock of shocking stories I’ve recently encountered; all of which I’m using to help keep me anchored.

  31. […] This post was Twitted by presentoutlook […]

  32. Such a touching story, Jonathan.

    Over two years ago, I wrote a blog called “When Your Husband Has Died – A Survival Guide.”

    It accidently turned into a widows forum with about 300 widows commenting, comforting and giving each other strength. They are all ages from their 20’s to 80’s. Some with very young children.

    This week it was flooded with comments about how sad Christmas was this year for them.

    I always remember my late husband on holidays – but time has passed. The intense pain is over.

    I was grateful to have a peaceful and happy holiday with my children and grandchildren this year.

    But was reminded of all the suffering there is in the world – and on my own blog.

  33. Jenny Fenig says:

    Thanks for sharing such an insightful post, Jonathan.

    I experienced my own “stressful” moment today when I was pushing my crying son in his stroller through the frigid, windy weather on our way to get a flu shot. Although he was bundled up, he was NOT happy in that stroller. It was one of those helpless moments we parents often experience when we want to help our children, but aren’t sure how.

    The crying made my stressed, the cold was bitter, and all of this seemed like a really big deal.

    Then … I … snapped out of my misery. I realized that 10 minutes of crying is really not much time in the grand scheme of things … and that if my son wants to cry to express himself, then that’s what he can do. I don’t have to “fix” things all the time. I can remember that moments are fleeting and my job is to do the best I can.

    In times of perceived struggle, I often think of my late sister Julie who passed away from cancer when she was 12. She never complained when she was sick. She took it all in stride. How brave! She’s my inspiration.

    I’m lucky to be here … we all are.

    Thanks for being so honest, Jonathan. You are amazing.

  34. Ed Gandia says:

    Funny how those in extremely difficult circumstances complain the least. Everyone I’ve ever met who has gone to Kenya or South America on a mission trip talks about this. The people they meet have NOTHING (and I mean nothing). A small hut with a dirt floor, which they share with 3 other families.

    Yet, they’re the happiest people on earth.

    Perspective. Thanks for the reminder my friend.

  35. Emily-Sarah says:

    Getting a grip on perspective and switching our focus to one of gratitude instead of nit-picking on what are almost always minor aggravations changes everything. It’s true that what you focus on gets bigger (maybe even literally with the arse situation?!). When we dwell on bad junk, our mind is an excellent and quick resource that adds quickly all the OTHER things to be displeased about. But the opposite is true too, thankfully: When we are mindful and deliberate to count our blessings, our brain happily obliges and soon we have a long list of good stuff to smile about. And maybe when our circumstances seem beyond petty to pitiful, we need to think, just for a moment, about horrific situations like what you’ve shared — and then while our mindset is realigned to one of gratefulness, also send up prayers for the individuals who are in the midst of those happenings.

  36. […] This post was Twitted by JoeScherb […]

  37. Having survived a serious road accident twelve years ago, I have a close and constant reminder of how bad things really could have been. I could have died, but, I live. I could be far more severely physically impaired than I am now. I could have lost my mind, and briefly did, but I clawed my way back to sanity.
    Mostly, I remember that if I didn’t go through that experience, I’d not have met my wife, been blessed with a son, or have the life I have now (which, for the record, I’m very happy with).
    The real secret is being able to perform that life-related context switch, and see what’s really really bad, and what is simply having a bad day.
    I have bad days, like everyone else, of course.

  38. Leszek Cyfer says:

    “I was despairing that I had no shoes, until I’ve met a guy without his feet”

    “If you keep your food in a fridge, your clothes in a wardrobe, sleep in your bed and have a ceiling above your head, you are richer than 75% of Earth human population”

    We don’t notice things that we take for granted until they are taken away from us.

    I am grateful for my still alive and kicking body, my family, friends, my home, my peaceful Poland homeland and this wonderful planet we inhabit. One moment is enough for all it gone, taken away from me, as it was, is and will be taken countless times from others.

    Whenever you’re in Ikea moment, remember what you’re grateful for.