Notes on sonder
The other day, a friend posted a definition of sonder on his Facebook page: “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.” (via Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)
A little extra digging found that it’s not a “real” word; however, I still love it when six letters can sum up a whole giant feeling. Sonder to me is one of the things that makes living in a big city and traveling to crazy faraway countries so much less scary. I once wrote: “People often ask if I get lonely, if I get scared being that far from home. I’ve never really been able to grasp the question: why would I be lonely or afraid when there’s so much to see, when (really) I could be home within hours of deciding to go to the airport?”
But really, I think that one of the reasons I’m not scared is feeling like everyone is just doing their best: everyone, everywhere wants to be happy and yearns for love and just tries to keep it all together. That’s true in the picture-perfect towns in Provence and the sometimes scary streets in the Bronx and floating villages in Vietnam and the crowded L train on a Monday morning. Everyone is living their own life, and I firmly believe that most people are good at heart.
One time, I was crying on the subway platform after a long day: one of those days where everything seems to go wrong, even though nothing is that important (the coffee spilled, and my job was frustrating me, and I wasn’t going to get home in time to get my nails done and drop off my dry cleaning–those kinds of problems). “If you live in New York, you’re bound to end up crying in public eventually; there just aren’t enough private places.” The joy about it is that usually everyone accepts this and leaves you alone. This time, a teeny-tiny Puerto Rican woman asked me if I was OK: I waved her off, saying it was nothing. She proceeded to tell me that her husband was arrested that morning on some sort of warrant over alimony payments, and she had spent all day at work trying to keep it together, and now she was on the long train ride back up to the Bronx to go home to an empty apartment to try to figure it all out. And she was comforting me! It was one of those moments where I felt profoundly grateful for my “problems” and also in awe of human kindness: we ended up chatting for the next few stops about life and love and how things go wrong when you least expect them.
Sometimes there are tiny cracks in sonder: a moment when a stranger steps in and makes themselves a memory instead of just a passing blur. That’s the sonder I truly love.