Sonder. A made-up word for a very real emotion. In his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig defines it: “sonder, n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.”
It’s a remarkable realization. We are all the stars of our own lives. We have our supporting casts filled with friends and families, maybe a foe or two, and then a whole world of incidental extras to our story. People behind the lit windows or sitting quiet on a shared bus or in some far off country. When we pause, we realize that they, too, have rich and complex stories filled with their own casts of characters. Their sorrows and joys are as real to them as ours to us.
Koenig has created a remarkable video to illustrate this notion of sonder. And his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is well worth your time. It is filled with profound insight and wonder.
But what to do with this realization, this feeling of sonder? It creates more than a passing fancy in us, doesn’t it? It leads to looking others in the eyes with respect rather than dismissing them as somehow lesser. It leads us to want to help ease their pain, as we realize that pain is as deep and biting as any we ourselves have felt, maybe even worse. It leads us to reevaluate our own centrality. Yes, we are central to our own stories, by virtue of our limited perspectives. But we don’t need to be bound in the fetters of our own subjectivity. We are central to our own stories, but not to the whole story, the world’s story, humanity’s story. There we are part of a vast cast of players, each at once both the star of their own story, and an extra in someone else’s.