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.
When you are waiting in line, or for a bus or plane, do you people-watch anymore? Do you observe strangers with an inquisitive mind, wondering about their lives? Or do you spend those minutes, those seconds, mindlessly scrolling through manufactured stories?
When you are sitting in traffic, where does your mind go? Do you look to the left at another driver with an impatient scowl; to the right at kids making bug-eyes back at you; to the car ahead with a couple talking animatedly; in the rear-view mirror to the person with head bent looking at their phone?
Is the person that bumped into you on the footpath whilst engaged in their phone an ignorant ass, or could they be anxiously navigating a difficult time in their life?
The person that rudely snapped at you just before, do they have an unpleasant personality, unlikeable and bad-mannered, or are they moments away from bursting into tears?
Everyone has a story.
A life filled with hopes and sorrows, aspirations and routines; a unique combination of talents and skills. They have worries that vary from the minute and mundane to life-changing and significant.
Things to do and places to be, or not. People waiting on them with expectations, or not. An important job that defines their own self-worth, or not. Supported by friends and a loving family, or not.
They would rather they were someplace else, or maybe not. Maybe they are right where they want to be, and you are inadvertently a witness to a happy memory in this stranger’s life.
Sonder is a made-up word, but its definition is noteworthy.
Tell me: When you think about all of the stories that sum up the person you are, how do you feel? Significant? Valuable? Complicated? Limitless? Important?
Now, think about everyone you know in your life, everyone you have ever met, everyone you have ever encountered, everyone you have ever seen on tv or read about or heard about. Everyone who has existed in your lifetime, everyone who has come before, everyone who is still to be. How do you feel? Infinitesimal? Trivial? Insignificant? Unimportant?
I hope not. We each play an important role in this world. And everyone has a story. How would our outlook be different if we consider that each person we encounter is just as valuable as ourselves? No matter how badly they are behaving.