I am in rush hour traffic. The freeway is backed up in both directions. I am frustrated. I need to be somewhere, but I am stuck, barely moving five miles per hour. And in my mind, I am not stuck with these other drivers, I am stuck because of these other drivers. As a result, I think to myself, “What is it that all these people do??? Where are they going? What are their lives all about? Is that woman really doing her makeup while driving right now? Did that dude just pick his nose? Really?!”
The “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” would lead me to believe that I have just experienced “sonder.”
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
Quite the definition, right? What is interesting to me is that what this word does well is defines a departure from ones selfish tendencies. In order to truly experience sonder, one must step outside of themselves and contemplate the complexities of the story lines available in someone else’s life. I like the word sonder for this reason. It encourages me to contemplate my role in this world. I may simply be an “extra” in someone else’s experience… an experience I will likely never truly nor fully understand.
Where I feel the word falls short, if a word can even do that, is that it fails to describe the motives, the steps, the process necessary to reach and experience sonder. In other words, it’s a word whose very definition is that of a realization that I am a “small fish in a big pond.” But how the experience is reached and why the experience is reached is another story.
I mean, as I was stuck in traffic, I thought about what all those people on the freeway did for a living, what their lives were about. Were they married, single, kids, working, in school, unemployed, etc? I was squarely focused on the lives of those around me. And yet, my thoughts about these people were not out of some genuine selfless interest. Instead, these thoughts were tied to my own selfish interests, which in turn were tied to my own personal experience and story line.
The experience was not simply, “I wonder what all these people do and what their lives were about?” Instead, it was, “I wonder what these people do and what their lives were about… because it’s crazy to think how many people are driving on this freeway, interfering with my commute home… consequently effecting my life.”
So, I guess my question becomes, can you actually experience sonder if it comes from your own selfish thinking? Or, to truly experience sonder, do you need to be as selfless as possible, giving yourself over to the idea that other people’s lives and stories are just as compelling and important as your own? Can you truly surrender yourself to someone else’s experience and simply be reduced to an “extra” in the background sipping coffee? Can you willingly be a blur of traffic passing by in someone else’s commute? Will your ego allow it? Will your primal instinct to survive (if even in just a hypothetical scenario) allow it? Are you willing to surrender your identity to serve as the background noise in the lives of others?
At the end of the day, I feel sonder is tightly connected to empathy. In fact, I would argue that sonder cannot exist without empathy. Empathy, by definition is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Therefore, very simply, if we cannot empathize, we cannot possibly experience sonder.
So, tying it all together, and in an attempt to offer some sort of conclusion to this rambling stream of consciousness… It all comes down to the connection between ego, empathy, and sonder. We must have the capacity to surrender our ego to a certain degree, in order to empathize with others, which then gives us the ability to experience sonder on the many levels in which the definition suggests the word itself encompasses.
And the best part of all of these mental gymnastics is… sonder is not even a word found in the dictionary (yet?).
Is sonder even a real word? A real experience? A real thing?
We can leave that debate for another time…