…but sonder may need a second look…
How many people do you come into contact with in a day? I don’t mean just the ones you speak to or have a relationship with, but all those souls you pass on the way to work, school, or practice who escape your notice. Maybe they are simple blurs in a flurry of busyness that comprises your life.
The English language people–you know, the ones who decide if a word is actually a word–have conflicting opinions on sonder. We’re hard pressed to use it correctly in the English language because it’s an awkward word, with its verb form but noun definition; Tumblr and Reddit define it this way:
sonder 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.
Perhaps it’s so hard to use in context because it’s so hard to grasp as a concept; however, for me at least, it’s becoming increasingly clear when a sonder is missing…
Years ago, my husband and I spent time in Oregon at a missionary school with international students. One Dutchman passed me on the sidewalk one morning, and I said, “Hi, how are you?” and kept walking. He later asked Todd why Americans ask people a question they don’t want to hear the answer to. Ouch!
We did, in fact, care how Bert was doing, but we were so wrapped up in our cultural conventions that we forgot sonder because Bert’s life was every bit as rich and complex as ours. He wanted to tell us how he was doing, and we needed to respect that.
I don’t suggest we become BFFs and hang out with every stranger we meet, just that we consider them as more fully developed characters in the story of the world than we typically see them. Would this change how we interact? When we see this clerk getting berated by a customer, can we summon the courage to pay him a compliment, or even to tell him we’ll pray for him and we’re sorry that last guy gave him a hard time? In other words, can we help him know we see him as a human being?
Whether they personify stereotypes behind a cash register, chewing gum and sporting gaudy tattoos, or defy stereotypes with non-conforming trends, every person we approach has a story. We’re not a part of the whole story, but we can be more than a simple extra. We can be that one person he can count on for a smile each day, and we might just be the only one.
So if you’re reading this blog and happen to write dictionaries, please include the word sonder in your next edition.
…and that’s the view from My Front Porch.
Special thanks to my favorite editor, Todd Frederick.