Sonder: The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.
I feel like everyone is a little self centered.
Now, I don’t mean selfish. Selfish in my mind means lacking empathy toward the people around you. Self centered on the other hand means that you think of life as a story in which you are the main character, which is fine. I feel like if we spent all our time thinking about the big picture and how we’re just minor characters in a big chaotic story that has absolutely no direction, we’d all be in bed having an existential panic attack 24/7.
It’s okay to be self centered. That just means that once in awhile you’ll experience sonder.
According to Wikipedia, sonder was a word created in 2012 as part of the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. I absolutely love this word because it’s definitely weird to think about how other people, people who have nothing to do with me, have lives just as fantastic and weird as mine. To them, the story is about them and that is just bizarre to think about.
There is a teenage boy who rides the bus right around the same time I do and he recently discovered Stephen King. He’s reading the Green Mile and we got to talking about King after he noticed that I was reading the Long Walk. I see him all the time, but never ask him about anything other than his current book. I sometimes think about him when I’m at home sorting through my bookshelf. Has he read this book? Does he like this author? Things like that.
Another familiar stranger in my life is a man and his four or five year old son. They will sometimes ride the bus with me in the mornings and they always stick out to me because of how cute the boy is. He always says goodbye to the bus driver and he loves to pull the cord when it’s time for them to get off the bus. Sometimes I think about them. Will the boy be going to school soon? Where does his dad work?
I know that I’m a familiar stranger in their lives, too. One day, I wore contacts to work and the little boy pointed it and told me I looked very nice. Another day, I stood up on the bus before it came to a complete stop and the little boy told me we weren’t supposed to stand up while the bus was moving. I sat back down immediately. When a little kid tells you you’re breaking a rule, you don’t argue.
It’s encounters like that that get me thinking about all the different versions of me out there in the world. Like you said, Daniel, there are people out there who remember us and probably wonder where we went when we leave. Those little kids at Big Al’s will always remember you as Dan the Man and nothing else. The woman at Petco will always remember you as Kyuzo’s dad. And, because of their memories, those versions of you will always exist, despite the fact you’ve moved on.
There are so many versions of each of us out in the world. It’s crazy to think about.
A few years ago I made the mistake of having a few too many beers at a bar and got sick in the parking lot. It’s very likely a stranger saw me and now I exist in that person’s mind as that drunk, party girl. They might never see me again, but a version of me lives on in their mind. Hell, I might even be an anecdote they share when the topic of alcohol comes up in conversation, despite the fact that I’m really not a party person at all.
But I am in their mind.
Another example would be my third grade teacher, Mrs. McCoy. She knew me for an entire school year so, of course, she got to know me a little better than the stranger in the bar parking lot. However, after I left her class, that version of me became stuck in her mind. Somewhere out there in the world, there is a woman who only knows me as a little seven year old girl who likes to read and doesn’t speak up a lot in class. If she met me now, heard how much I swear and saw all my tattoos, it might blow her mind.
It would also kill the version of me that lives in her mind. Kind of morbid to think about, right?
There must me hundreds of thousands of versions of me out there, living in people’s memories. Someone saw me slip on ice and now an incredibly clutsy version of me exists. Someone saw me crying on the bus and now a very sad, helpless version of me exists. Someone saw me out for a run and now an athletic version of me exists.
It’s bizarre to think about, isn’t it?