The best words are the ones with no English equivalent. They invariably describe moments in the human experience that we find exotically ungraspable. Unpindownable. Fleeting. Ephemeral. Often they’re concepts that Anglo culture has – simply – failed to grasp. Some of my favourites include hygge, haimish, mamihlapinatapai and suadade.

Image via tumblr
Image via tumblr

Today I present you with sonder.

sonder, n. the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

This is a translation that comes from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and appears to derive from some very old French word.

My new e-mate Hazel alerted me to such a dictionary. She gets my affinity with melancholy. Thanks Hazel.

So, to experience sonder…it happens when you’re in a crowd and people are streaming toward you (perhaps in a train station), or perhaps you’re on a plane and have the opportunity to stare up close at the people sitting nearby (as I am just now as I write this on a plane to Melbourne).

This stream of faces, or opportunity to pause intimately and be with humanity, drags you from your own myopic, clustery thinking and to something bigger. You get a feel for the flow. For the fact that we’re all part of something. Of your own insignificance. AND AIN’T THIS A RELIEF WHEN THIS KICKS IN??

And the stranger’s faces start to say so much. You can see their stories and struggles. And suddenly an expansive feeling overwhelms you – there are so many stories and struggles! And that being so, there must be a reason for them. There must be a bigger picture. And that bigger picture must entail more than our myopic, clustery thinking. It must. And in this realization we are able to rise from the pain of the cluster-fuckery in our heads and smile at the fact there is a forest for the trees. We get some altitude and expansive, kind insight.

That’s sonder. It’s certainly an obscure sorrow. How so sorrow? Because what comes with sonder is an awareness that we live 92 per cent of our lives in an unexpanded state.

But perhaps that’s so that the 8 per cent is really recognizable when it strikes.

I’d like to know when and how sonder kicks in for you?

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