Sonder* – n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own
*Note: this is not an official word yet, but for the purposes of this essay, let’s pretend it is.
When I was younger and bored, my sisters, my mom, and I would take turns choosing random passerby and guessing their life stories (my dad tried a few times, but he was never any good). We would park ourselves on sidewalks, on dirty benches and sandy blankets; stare out car windows and dangle our legs off swings.
That woman with the coffee is running to a job interview to be the new face of a Japanese cosmetics line.
That man in the green jacket has an entire bionic torso after an unfortunate incident with a thrift shop katana.
That little girl has an IQ of 213 but wants to be a pastry chef when she grows up.
That frazzled man with the baby strapped to his stomach is rushing to his job at the aquarium to feed the clownfish while also watching his nephew. He tried to feed the clownfish his nephew last week, but his sister is giving him a second chance and wanted to go to book club.
That little boy is an alien in disguise. He has come to scope out the Earth for co-habitation but has found it inhospitable and will return to his mother planet shortly.
That Chihuahua just killed a man.
It was a fun game, but I always grew anxious by the uncertainty of it all. These guesses weren’t the truth, and the truth was what was important. I could guess a million guesses about someone, and there was not a guarantee that a single one would be correct.
However, as I got older and more relaxed (or maybe my stresses were just diverted to more important things than strangers’ lives), I began to appreciate the beauty of uncertain wonder. Statistically speaking, it was likely my guesses weren’t true – but what if?
It’s Schrödinger’s Cat, grossly oversimplified. A cat is hidden in a box with poisonous food, and as long as the box remains closed, the cat is both dead and alive. But if the box is opened, then the cat is either one or the other.
It’s the same with sonder. As long as I never question other people about who they are or where they’re going, my guesses are just as true as the reality. That woman was the one to find the cure for a very rare viral infection. That man did just meet his future wife in an ice cream shop.
When I was younger and thought about other people’s lives, stranger’s lives, my chest would tighten and my breath would hitch. My heart would quicken, my palms would sweat, and I would pant faster and faster until my lungs and head hurt. The idea of not knowing terrified me. I would never see these people again, and I would wonder forever.
Now though, I don’t mind as much. I can laugh at the guesses without panicking inwardly. I have learned to let wonder evolve into a new meaning. Instead of uncertainty and not knowing, I have been beaten down over the years to make it mean cheerful insignificance and a contentedness with the parameters of my limited knowledge.
Obviously, sometimes it is better to know. Sometimes the box must be opened and the cat must be checked. But on this topic, I think that I’m happier wondering. To me, nothing is more interesting than these concocted fantasies I make up for people. To me, these stories are just as true as whatever lives their owners lead.
On this topic, I will keep the box closed tightly, and the cat will always be both dead and alive.