My husband used to tell me a little story I have since cherished that occurred on the day I first arrived in Germany ten years ago. My flight out of New York had been abruptly delayed by a few hours, so he had to wait for me in the airport lobby for quite a while. He sat quietly, puzzling over the joyous enigma of my visit, and as the time slowly passed, he found himself staring at the endless procession of cars moving along the many overlapping roadways surrounding the low, narrow building. It had been a dark, rainy winter evening. I imagine the passing headlights cast glimmering circlets on the wide, rain-studded windows in front of him. The lights brightening into glaring cone-like flashes as they neared, only to shrink back into facetted spheres, narrowing down to pinpoints, eventually fading back into darkness as the cars sped away one by one.
As he looked on, a particularly poignant thought struck him: Each person in those passing cars had a reason for being there at that precise moment. Each person had somewhere to drive to, a family, a story to tell. Each and every one of them had a story— had, in fact, many stories to tell.
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. (This is a new word originating from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, by John Koenig)
Each set of lights was a person, shining so brightly in the gloom and fading. Each with their own distinct emotions and reasons for being there. Perhaps one person was in the midst of a relationship crisis, driving back home after saying a cold goodbye to someone they once trusted. Perhaps a family was reunited for the first time in many years. Perhaps a taxi driver was hurrying back to the city to pick up more customers for the night. Perhaps someone was singing along to a favorite song on the radio on their way to see an old friend. It was all likely. Perhaps someone was even looking back at him, at his darkened form against the window, that very moment, wondering the same thing about him!
It is also likely, that try as they might, no one could ever guess the real reasons why he or anyone else was actually there. Who could have guessed that my husband was at the airport that particular evening because he was waiting, of all people, for a woman he randomly met while dancing past midnight in Barcelona just a few months before. That this woman became a friend that he often wrote to and had lively Skype conversations with, a friend who secretly wondered if their relationship would develop into something more, something secure and lasting. That love was quickly becoming apparent between them. Love, that would bring them to unknown places and through daunting challenges. Love, that would make them whole, sound and better than before.
It is also likely that no one can ever completely understand what exactly is going on in anyone’s life at any given moment, let alone what that person has gone through in the past, what kind of person they really are, or what they are capable of. It’s quite hard enough to know all this of oneself! Yet, it often strikes me whenever I meet someone for the first time or observe the many exchanges between strangers in daily life, how often we treat other people as if they were no more than props, inconveniences, or two-dimensional figures with little to no complexity of their own. All are diminished to background material in the center stage that is our own life. Stereotyping has always been a commonplace and habitual activity, as widespread as it is effortless to do. The reduction of people to simpler, quantifiable forms by assumptions, generalities and superficial attributes is so prevalent, insidious and powerful that it can effectively steer politics, make enemies, change the course of history.
No two siblings are exactly alike despite sharing most, if not all, of the same genetic material (in the case of identical twins). Every brother, every sister is different, despite sharing the same parents, upbringing and culture (if not separated). Yet, leaders can still rise to power by labeling entire groups of people, even nations, as if they were all the same—easy to quantify, easy to appraise. Ironically, this is, in all likelihood, the most unifying attribute that we all have in common as humans, besides our basic physical needs: our self-centeredness, a nearly universal insistence on our own importance, a pronounced inclination to a self-serving selectivity of the “facts”, our relentless self-obsession. Ask any side of any opposing group—any side at all—and they will accuse the opposition of being blindly “self-interested” and come up with all sorts of evidence to prove this.
I observe self-centeredness in myself very often: Whenever I think of all the places that I’ve ever lived in, my home is always positioned in the center, and everything within a two or three-mile radius is the “edge” of my neighborhood. I even feel a flutter of hesitation whenever I am physically near the borders of my “territory”. Yet, I know this to be false. Even though my mind may focus only on information it deems relevant out of biological necessity, regardless if I have any conscious control over this or not—I am absolutely sure I am wrong about this. Of all the things that I am sure about, I am sure that my perception does not describe the reality, it is only my reality. To someone who lives in any neighborhood bordering mine, I am the one existing in the periphery.
Whenever I had to draw a map at school, I always started with the country I lived in: the US—the rest of the world was just a border, superfluous, an outlier. To any given person, the center of the world is wherever they are. Now imagine a world without a center. A sphere without a focal point. Can you even imagine it? All I can come close to is a spinning globe and I still have to begin with the continent I know best, North America and turn from there. It seems quite shocking that a Copernican model of the universe ever took hold at all. Thinkers and astronomers the world over had questioned the theory of an Earth-centered cosmos for thousands of years, but their doubts had always been silenced before the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun was finally accepted as the norm (which, nonetheless, took several hundred years after its publication).
Another person’s humanity, value and complexity is as real and valid as our very own. That may seem obvious and apparent. It may seem easy to envision with a stronger imagination, or a more dynamic projection of self onto others. But nothing is a given—least of all, someone else’s existence. Our history is full of people who saw others as no more than objects, pawns, slaves, cogs in a wheel, all there just for the benefit of the few, all there just to turn a profit. And by “others”, I don’t mean just strangers or foreigners, they even objectified their very own children, spouses, kin and fellow townspeople.
Throughout my life, especially working for corporations, I have come to meet many people who assess others based on how much they stand to gain from them, how much each person can “contribute” to whatever enterprise they deem worthy. These assessors are usually the main movers and shakers of our societies, successful at amassing great power and wealth. The very strength of their self-centeredness—the very force of their unwavering focus and self-aggrandizement seems powerful enough to earn other people’s faith and allegiance. Perhaps the rationale is if they are successful at imposing their own self-interest, they will benefit everyone else’s interests too. Yet, if we insist on repeating history, we should know how poorly egoism plays out: The strong take advantage of the weak. The vast majority suffer, most of all, the poor and vulnerable.
Even language itself forces to us to have a self-centered focus. Columbus did not “discover” the New World, it existed as the one and only world for millions of other people before he even set foot on it. At the beginning of this very text, I wrote “unknown lands”, to me, certain lands are unfamiliar and therefore “unknown”, but to the people living in those places they are home. Most importantly, I deliberately used the adjectives “false” and “wrong” to describe my perception of my own neighborhood, however, there is nothing innately “bad” in self-centeredness. Right and wrong, good and bad, superior and inferior—none of these adjectives can exist independently, their very existence proves the existence of the observer, namely, the observer’s subjectivity.
There is nothing innately “wrong” about my personal perception of my own neighborhood, it would only be “false” or “wrong” if I were to expect my perception of reality to match or supersede that of someone living outside of my neighborhood. Taken to more extreme levels, this false expectation can result in tragic outcomes: racism, colonialism, sexism—these are all instances where someone in a position of power expects their perception of reality to supersede certain other people’s perception and acts to implement it. Every comparative and superlative we use is completely dependent on the viewpoint of the observer. And there is no observer who does not perceive reality with their very own subjectivity. Everything is relative.
Right and wrong, good and bad, superior and inferior are not as fixed and immutable as we often like to believe them to be, they do not exist as absolute truths in a vacuum. However, I would not go so far to say everything is a figment of the imagination and therefore meaningless. We must simply complete the symmetry of the equation: If another person’s, humanity, value and complexity is as real and valid as our very own, our very own humanity, value and complexity is as real and valid as another person’s. If we cannot acknowledge or even try to imagine the complexity of every person’s life, what does that make of our own life? Is it then not simple, monocular, limited by its profound lack of depth and variety?
If we only have our own subjectivity with which to perceive the world, then we could, at the very least, recognize it for what it is, use it more carefully and question who it really is that we diminish, define, or empower. If we become more aware of our self-centered inclinations, we would not lose our center, we would not fall off the edge of the world. We would not lose the world at all, but gain a new one, a world more whole and sound than ever before. A world more vivid than we can even imagine. A world of infinite centers.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker ©2018 (unless otherwise noted).
The word “sonder” is a creation by John Koenig and he states “All words in this dictionary are new. They were not necessarily intended to be used in conversation, but to exist for their own sake; to give a semblance of order to a dark continent…” (source). But language, like culture and fashion is constantly changing, when enough people use it, it could very well be an official word someday. It is also important to note that “sonder” in the German language means special or extra.
Fittingly, the publication of this story is a result of the overwhelmingly positive response from my blogging community, whose enthusiasm prompted me to submit it to editors for review. I thank the incredibly supportive bloggers who have continually recognized the value in my efforts, please take a look at the work of these talented people here!
A heartfelt thanks also goes to Cheri Lucas Rowlands and Discover for sharing this story!