Sonder

There are times when I have moments where something in the world slaps my wandering mind into the present.

I will notice someone or something out in the world and have this wave of reality flashbake itself into my awareness… “This thing exists even when I’m off doing something else.”

There’s a term for this: Sonder.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows was created by John Koenig in 2006 and is a site that coins and defines neologisms or emotions that do not have a descriptive term.

He defines Sonder as:

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 started noticing this years ago, where suddenly I would realize that the person driving the other way on the road was an actual person, with an actual life. They had friends and family and their own life stresses that I would never know about.

Recently I was sitting in a drive through behind a local pharmacy to pick up a prescription, looking down the long blank wall of the rear of the building when I noticed it wasn’t just a long blank wall, there were patterns in the bricks with some pulled out slightly to create accent lines.

These lines converged down the long wall for the exact reason that art teachers will teach perspective drawing from a single point. If you mentally followed these lines past the end of the building to their logical ends they converged across the street on a large tree, as if they’d been designed that way.

Once you noticed it the visual was striking serendipity.

What does this have to do with anything? Nothing directly.

But what it made me consider was that this wall, those lines, and that tree are always there whether I’m asleep, at home buried in work, writing blog posts, or even a thousand miles away. There’s reality outside the self-reinforcing world between my ears.

With every passing day it feels more and more like reality is a bad television show. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the our interactions with the world becoming contextualized in the same way as the worst of Reality TV programming (it’s all afwul). People, places, things, become concepts in a Michael Bay movie in our head.

The world right now is more terrifying than any point in my life and I’ve been overwhelmed at every level for some time. While there are things I can’t directly change about the world at large there are things I can change in my own head.

That starts for me with being more aware that things exist outside my head, and that I can better navigate the unfettered torrent of chaos in the world if I’m simply present, mindful, and aware.

Making changes to your life, to my life, becomes more effective when we look for the sonder in the world.