I rifled through my giant bins of pre-iPhone photographs. My college besties were coming for a sleepover and it’s always a fun game to look back at the way we were. I found a handful of photos, big hair and pegged jeans carbon dating us to the early 90’s. There is one photo I particularly love, showing the four of us, arms slung around each other. We look radiant and why wouldn’t we? We were young and unencumbered, our biggest worry passing Organic Chemistry or figuring out what to wear to the Friday night frat party. We were gloriously unaware, with no idea what was coming down the pike. The divorces, the deaths, the miscarriages, the shitshow that is marriage and parenting and menopause and living in a world that seems to have an expiration date was all in the unknowable, distant future.
This photo has ragged edges where I cut it before gluing it in my scrapbook. You can see a shoulder just past Gwen’s face, someone’s hand around her waist. A someone I had apparently cut out of our pic, the 1995 version of Photoshop.
I can’t stop thinking about that someone. Who was it? Are they still living? What is their daily life like? Which of their dreams were dashed and which came to fruition? What’s their favorite book? What’s the most beautiful thing they ever saw? Do they believe in magic?
I wonder how many times I have inadvertently photo-bombed someone’s otherwise perfect family photo at the Eiffel Tower or the Vatican. And when they gaze at the framed pic, do they see a sliver of my calf or my wild, curly hair and wonder the same things about me?
There’s a term for this feeling. Sonder, or the sudden realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as our own.
John Koening (rhymes with raining) is a Minnesotan author who grew up in Switzerland. European languages have far more words than English to describe various emotions and states of being. When Koening returned to the states as an adult, he invented words for emotions that currently lack words, ultimately compiling them in his book The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.
Inspired by the German word sonder (meaning special), and the French word sonder (meaning to probe), this word basically describes that feeling we get when we realize we aren’t the protagonist in anyone else’s story. We’re only extras, minor characters that may or may not turn the plot or even get speaking parts.
I can remember the exact moment I first experienced sonder. It was 1991. I was stargazing in a field with my friend Wes, just high enough on crappy weed that everything we said seemed infinitely wise. As a plane flew overhead, Wes asked where I thought the plane was headed (I mean, the obvious answer is Atlanta, but this didn’t occur to me at the time). I decided on Tampa, the Lightning Capital of the World. We started imagining the people on that flight, how one was surprising her ex to give their love another shot, how another was a Kinkos businessman whose promotion depended upon his getting some corporation to exclusively print with his company. Someone was heartbroken, another newly married. Someone had a heart in a cooler, ready to be transplanted into a waiting abdominal cavity in Florida. An old couple held hands because she didn’t like to fly. Someone in first class had too much to drink and the flight attendants were secretly watering down his bourbon rocks order so he didn’t get out of hand.
Now I suspect that the stories I devised were actually less interesting than the peoples’ actual stories. Sonder.
Everyone has their own dreams, experiences, hopes, wishes, and understanding of the world. Everyone around us is living a rich, deeply nuanced existence, and this awareness can help us be kinder, more compassionate people. When we see others as only bit players in our story, we strip them of their humanity, and overemphasize our own importance. When we remember that everyone has a story, we are apt to show up with more patience and understanding.
Someone told me once that the secret to being a good person was treating everyone as if they are grieving. When we know someone is grieving a major loss, we are willing to extend to them all the compassion, kindness, and understanding we have, and are inclined to offer them latitude for making what we (might otherwise) assume are bad choices.
This inclination is the flip side of feeling sonder. First we become as curious about the lives of others as our own, then we treat them with the gentle reverence they deserve.