It’s quite early for a Saturday morning and I’m sitting in a café drinking a latte. My brain is not ready to work yet so I’m watching people around me.
To my left sits a couple with their laptops on the table. The woman scribbles, what the man is telling her, in a notebook on her lap. He shows her something on his laptop and then they both lean over hers. They discuss something in low voices, nod to each other, and some more scribbling follows.
And I’m sitting there, 3 meters away, shamelessly staring at them and I’m wondering why they met here today. To take a wild guess, it’s a tutor with his student. She needs some help with meeting a deadline and he’s sacrificing his Saturday to help her out. Suddenly, I’m all involved in their lives. Lives of these background characters in my life story. I see this woman in her bathroom this morning brushing her hair and trying to talk herself into calming down before the meeting and the assignment. Her roommate is calling to her to hurry up. Her phone’s battery is dying so she needs to grab a portable charger before rushing out.
Next, I picture the man. How in the morning he went to the grocery store and bought fresh bread and eggs for breakfast. How there was no hot water in the shower, so he didn’t wash his hair as planned. And how he noticed a hole in his sock, cursed and changed it. But he changed only one and now is wearing two different socks.
Lost in all those thoughts, I notice that the woman is looking at me from time to time with a suspicious look on her face. I smile awkwardly, sip my coffee and start writing.
I can’t help it. I find it fascinating to imagine the lives of others. How this couple made so many decisions that led them into this café at this time.
I have such moments of wonder a couple of times a day. When I’m riding the tube, when I space out in the office and gaze at my colleagues, or when I’m drinking beer with friends and they talk about their joys and sorrows.
Sonder is the word describing such moments. When you realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you or doesn’t owe you anything, because every single person has problems as big as yours. That everyone is the hero of their own story and most of the time you’re just an extra in the background. You’re that awkward girl with a laptop at the opposite table in a café looking angry and judgemental because, well, she has a resting bitch face.
I love the feeling of it. When you dive so deep into someone else’s life that for a few moments you’re free from your own.
Sonder is the gate to empathy. To be empathetic you need to look beyond yourself and notice that life happens even if you’re not in the picture. Of course, there are two ways to think about this.
The first one is the empathetic and optimistic way, which is the one I try to follow. It is the way to use sonder to empower others and to make as big and positive impact as you can. It is the urge to help others, to make the world better even in the smallest way. Maybe you’ll help a mother with a child carry a buggy down the stairs, maybe it’s riding a bike to work instead of the car and make the air a bit cleaner and not contributing to the pollution today.
I believe in those small acts of kindness and compassion. They work through the domino effect. If you do it, then maybe you’ll convince three of your friends to do it, they’ll convince their friends etc., and, as a result, a thousand people will do it and maybe even more. That’s the power of the people. That’s the power of sonder and empathy.
The second way is the pessimistic and quite selfish way and I strongly advise against it. It is the way to use sonder as an excuse to be lazy because, in the end, you’re only one person among seven billion. This way makes you give up all the power that you have. It’s like not going to vote, because your vote alone cannot change anything. But as I said before, every single person’s actions count. One thousand people without one person is not a thousand anymore, right?
The decision on which way to choose is yours, as it is with most things in life.
So which way do you choose? Let me know!