Sonder is a term coined by John Koenig in his book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows a project in which he seeks to describe emotions without names. Sonder, “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 think the first jolt of sonder I felt was outside the New York Public Library on a trip as a teen, the steps, and the area around it were teeming with hundreds of people, with a shock I realized all these people are “real” they have lives, stories, failures and happiness. They aren’t just extras in my world (lol) they also have a personal reality and storyline. It was like catching a glimpse of a thousand different galaxies pulsing at once. Maybe the world isn’t exactly how we personally imagine it. There are marvels in the small everydayness of people’s lives. These marvels manifest as unique realities created by purposeful action, sometimes resulting in quiet joyful contentedness and sometimes wretchedness and displeasure. I often give myself over to sonder, I share those episodes often on Twitter when I detail my small immersions into people’s inner worlds at my local café or wherever I am. Informally it may seem like I am eavesdropping, but I am really stepping out of my world and tuning in to theirs. It’s not a casual observance, I am trying to get a feel for their world, a glimpse a or a taste even. Imparting judgment is a part of drawing conclusions about others. In practice sonder is a better more productive emotion than empathy in my opinion. In mentalizing and taking another perspective you can more properly acknowledge the complexness, distinctness of others’ lives and experiences. It is an exercise of actual empathy. Sonder is also an actual word in German, referring to something special. In French its origin comes from “sounding line” and refers to probing or measuring. There is also a theory that the word has its root in the Latin word subundare which means, examine, discover or attempt to discover that which is concealed. Maybe Koenig used all these meanings to formulate his meaning for sonder. We don’t always need to ask someone how they are feeling or what they are interested in we can simply change perspective, observe and judge. I think that is more meaningful in practice than just virtue signaling empathy via lip service. People often advocate for communication or verbal exchanges of empathy like simply asking your loved one how they are feeling instead of shifting perspective to theirs and noticing the cues that can tell you more accurately how they are feeling. Simply, if you are with someone regularly you should be adept at anticipating and sensing their needs and feelings without verbal prompt. The push for constant “communication of feelings” is a way to get out of doing the work of empathy. There is an excellent cinematic study of sonder in the German movie, Wings of Desire. The movie follows immortal angels in Berlin that go around listening to the thoughts of and observing the lives of the inhabitants of the city. There’s a library scene where 2 of the angels walk through the library listening to conversations, peering over shoulders at reading and writing materials. The idea in the movie is that angels with a human existence or perspective are better….
Alexandrovna’s Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.