Sonder, the Collective Experience

Aman Manazir

Lately, I've thought a lot about my feelings concerning the current global pandemic. I regularly find myself wondering when things will return "back to normal", if such a phrase is even accepted in our vocabulary any longer. More and more, when that thought comes to me, I think about how I can sometimes feel alone or misdirected, not sure what to do as it seems as if I have nothing to look forward to anymore.

When pondering this, I recently came across the idea of Sonder while listening to a podcast as a mechanism for gratefulness and therapy. The definition of Sonder is as follows:

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

Sonder derives from the idea that most people perceive their experiences as if they are the protagonist of every story they are a part of; which makes sense, as people view everything from their own eyes and position. Everything he or she sees is from the center of the narrative, surrounded by friends and family, solely in the immediate periphery.

However, because every single person experiences this same phenomenon, it builds up into an unknown world of billions of unique experiences and stories just as vivid and detailed as one's own.

As soon as I read this, I began to think about how this encapsulates my thought process perfectly. I started to think about this every time I slid by an unknown mask-clad passerby at the grocery store; underneath that mask lies a set of eyes passing over me, a whole separate plane of existence, thoughts and struggles that I don't and will never know about. An entire life story moving past mine, unaffected by the other.

Often, when first introduced to the idea of sonder, people think about Times Square in New York City; so many stories put together in one place, totally unaffected by the other, each person moving invisibly through their stories, carrying the burden of their own relationships, passions, dreams, failures, and histories.

This seems like a very obvious idea when initially presented, but it made a radical difference to my experience when I actively recall it in random moments when witnessing other people.  It truly altered my perception of random passerby's when facing them directly and pondering this concept.

I often think of sonder through imagining what I seem like to other random people. My entire perspective and thoughts are wrapped up in my own narrative, yet to them I'm just a being moving by, someone who they'll forget 20 seconds after seeing me. This thought often gives me perspective and provides solace when distressing events occur.

So the next time you feel sad or lonely or lost due to social isolation, think about sonder and how the whole world feels exactly the same way, and let that give you rest.

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