Jorge and I finally found time to belatedly celebrate his birthday together. His trucking route had been temporarily changed due to the vacation of one of his coworkers. We were both eager to pick up from where we had left off a couple of months ago.
One night, Jorge said he had been browsing through his social media apps and realized that a peculiar word kept showing up in Reddit. He had never seen that word until now, so he decided to look up the definition. One site defined sonder as the realization that each random passerby is living a life as complex and intense as your own. It’s an obscure word that is now becoming more frequently used.
Jorge said he has often felt this emotion but believed that it was an aspect of empathy. He didn’t realize that there was another way of expressing this almost sad feeling. He asked what my experience has been with sonder.
The very first time I intellectually encountered this state of mind was during a classroom discussion in Psychology 101 in college. The instructor pointed out that extreme empathy usually relates to the epiphany that there are millions of people in the world who we will never meet, talk to, or ever personally know. Each of them has a unique life in which they are the center of the universe. This epiphany is much deeper than a mere intellectual understanding.
After the instructor described this definition, I knew that I had come to this same realization in my teens during my very first existential crisis. Carlos, the foreign exchange student our family hosted, was the catalyst of my own epiphany and state of mind. Even though Carlos and I hashed this out, we didn’t have a technical name for it. We only knew that we both understood empathy on the same level. We had both encountered this existential emotion. It was then that we became more humane and human. There was no turning back.
Jorge mentioned that his epiphany about this fact also happened during his late teens. It was during his first real vacation away from Los Angeles. His mentors had invited Jorge to accompany them on a road trip to Colorado. The mental flash occurred when the three of them were hiking on a foot path in Estes Park. Jorge noticed that a man was engaged in meditation. The novelty of the situation, caused something to “click” in Jorge’s mind. An overwhelming wave of empathy washed over him at that moment.
My friend said that he doesn’t remember anything else about that hike in the forest. There was only the mental experience that defied analysis. Instantly, he had come to deeply understand that the meditating man was the center of the Universe, in that man’s world. Jorge said that day marked the first time that he felt absolute kinship with humanity.
I mentioned that my encounter with this type of empathy made me realize two things. First, I deeply felt a melancholic sensation of my own insignificance. Second, it was the first time I actually felt like I was a part of humankind, as a whole. The feeling was a strange blend of sadness and joy. It was probably the first positive assault upon my egoism.
Jorge and I looked at one another in silence for a few moments. I nervously got up from my chair to refill our coffee mugs. Jorge also stood up and reflexively hugged me. The discussion about sonder had deeply moved him.
We both took sips of hot coffee from the refilled mugs. Jorge, wondered aloud how many people have never experienced sonder or any authentic sense of empathy. How about our community and world leaders? Have they really encountered sonder? There are so many politicians and religionists who speak and act as though they don’t truly understand their fellow humans. Their judgements are made only by words of law or doctrine.
I mentioned a recent book I was reading about the beginnings of the Holocaust. The level of brutality and sadism of the SS camp commanders at the Dachau concentration camp and that of the underlings and guards is beyond my comprehension. There clearly are many people who have never deeply felt empathy nor sympathy. Certainly they never encountered sonder. Or maybe they have.
A few years ago, also while pondering the Third Reich, I had wondered about the question of empathy and right-wing extremists like fascists and Nazis. Perhaps they had experienced the epiphany of strong empathy. Maybe the wash of emotion and melancholy intimidated them. Perhaps they experienced an existential crisis and had to repress their empathy because it was just too much to deal with. Instead of allowing themselves to feel kinship with others, they closed themselves off and became ever more self-centered.
Jorge said he hypothesized about the problems caused by heartless people and came to the same conclusion. Empathy can be a very frightening emotion under certain circumstances.
Some people seem incapable of facing it. Because neither of us have been formally trained as psychologists, we can only guess at the reasons for such behavior. We don’t have the means to conduct a study about sonder. Perhaps someone will do so in the future. Maybe there already is an arcane study about it.
We remained curious about sonder, so we decided to investigate it online. Apparently the word was created by the author of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The word was made up or coined by that writer. He said, “Well, I wrote the original definition for sonder, so I guess that would make me the source. And I think it’d still be a great tattoo.” Jorge and I laughed over this discovery. We agreed that sonder should become an “official, real” word.
Jorge says that he wishes that the people who advocate in favor of so-called “religious freedom” laws could somehow have a flash of sonder. If only they could deeply know that the people these laws target are living lives as complicated and vivid as their own. Don’t they care that everybody has friends, family, routines, worries, and problems just like their own?
I agree. Everybody has a life that is difficult enough. There is no need for people to hurt others or block people from living a free and joyful life.
Jorge shook his head. Most of the people who really need to understand empathy, just refuse to relate to the whole of humanity. Their egos know no limits.
I shrugged my shoulders and told Jorge I deeply understand his love of German chocolate cake. Would he like some? The time had come to center our conversation onto Jorge’s birthday. We would have to solve the world’s problems at a later time.