Sonder, n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own (The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.) This word, though only popular in pop culture, has so much meaning for me. I walk alongside the lives of so many individuals. I get an inside glimpse of people going through extreme stress and achieving amazing goals and get the privilege of traveling that journey with them, of hearing their fears, hopes, losses and aspirations.
I remember when my mother died suddenly at 57, I wasn’t ready to let her go and I grieved for a long time, the loss was so profound. A close co-worker asked me three months after her passing “when was I going to get back to normal.” She had never lost someone close to her. When her own mother died from cancer years later, she called in that grief-stricken moment and told me her mother died. The pain in her voice was palatable, I knew it, I had felt it before. Sonder.
We see people on TV. We see them acting in ways that are different than how we would act in a given situation and we make judgments – we all do it. We forget that their pain, their sorrow, their hopes, their dreams, how much they love their children, their significant others – is just as vivid as how we love our own children and significant others. Their pain, though potentially expressed differently, is just as real, just as vivid as our own. If we can understand that, if we can see the pain, the joy, the life in another, we can let go of some of the judgment and feel for those around us. This broadens our capacity for compassion and caring. Broadens our desire to see things get better for others and to look for real sustainable solutions. It helps us understand that behaviors happen for a reason and until we can reach out to understand the reason, it is hard for us to achieve real change.
A highly respected businessman in our community was at a meeting recently and shared “That others had not had the same opportunity as he had and he wanted to try and make that possible.” Impressive. In the scope of his incredibly busy, vivid life, full of his own tremendous joys and sorrows – he paused and could see that there are others struggling around him and he wants to make a difference. He chose to see, and that choice is important. We can, at any given time, see or turn away, and sometimes because it is too painful, sometimes because we don’t understand, sometimes because we feel guilt, or sometimes because our own life demands so much, we turn away, make judgments, or label those experiences of others as invalid. Just as my coworker asked me when I would “return to normal” – we discount the experiences of others. But we can choose to see, seek to understand, and allow ourselves to walk alongside others whose life experiences are different than our own.
Sonder. Whether in politics, riots in communities, or refugees fleeing their homes, there is a reason that people behave as they do. Their experiences and perceptions, though potentially different than our own, are just as valid, just as colorful, just as real as our own and they drive our own perceptions, judgments and beliefs. But if we can allow ourselves to see life through the colorful blue, green, or brown eyes of someone else – seek to understand the life they live, we can learn so much and be changed for the better!