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.
I recently learned a new word.
Sonder. The description is above
It’s a concept I’ve been familiar with since I was a kid. I just didn’t know there was a word for it.
I remember riding in the car with my grandparents so many years ago, looking out the window at the lights in old country houses, wondering what was going on behind those doors. I remember my first couple of weeks in Chicago, looking up at the high rises, wondering what stories were unfolding up there just out of range of my observation.
I’ve been curious about this my whole life. It’s why I started writing at a young age. I was always intensely curious about other people’s lives.
And now I’m a psychologist. I get to hear a lot about the stories behind the lights. Sometimes I wonder if I should have been more careful about what I wished for..
But I think there’s a more powerful lesson to consider about this concept. Maybe this sense of sonder can make us more understanding, more thoughtful, and more compassionate about the invisible and complex joys and sorrows that the strangers on the street are experiencing. Perhaps this can make us more willing to forgive a small indiscretion, a moment of irritation, a less than polite response. God knows we've all been on the wrong end of these transactions a time or two.
It's kind of a profound idea if you think a little more about it. The harried barista at Starbucks? The troubled looking cashier at Walgreens? The elderly guy that pours your coffee at Dunkin Donuts? All of these people are starring in a complex movie that you know almost nothing about. You're just an inconvenient extra in their lives. Maybe they are genuinely happy to see you, or maybe they are forcing a smile. Either way, you're not on center stage. There are much deeper hopes and dreams and worries and loves and heartbreaks in their lives that you will never know a thing about.
It reminds me to be as compassionate with others as I would hope they would be with me. I’m just a bit player in the complex production that is their lives. It reminds me to keep a little perspective. To slow down. To listen a little more closely.
Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut said it best in “God bless you Mr. Rosewater”
“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-Goddamnit, you've got to be kind.”