Earlier this week, flying home to Salt Lake City from the midwest, I arrived at the airport a little bit early so I could walk up and down the terminals and people watch (one of my favorite pastimes). I saw an exhausted, embarrassed mother meticulously extracting Nerds from a worn carpet while she comforted her screaming baby. There was an elderly couple huddled together in a corner, the man picturesquely reading a newspaper while his wife snoozed on his shoulder. I saw men in dapper suits and women holding expensive bags and first-time flyers and millennials rushing to their gates. And as I watched all these people, I felt strangely overwhelmed with love for them. I loved how charming and witty and passionate they seemed, how authentic and intelligent and diverse.
In his work, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig attempts to define emotions that lack established description. To fill in the holes of language, he writes. And one of his invented words is sonder.
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—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 a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
There are seventy times more people who currently live on the earth than there are stars in our galaxy. And each one—woman, brother, grandfather, cousin, stranger—has a story filled with ambition, motivation, routine, and worry. And I loved thinking about people’s stories, you know? How the Nerds woman’s husband recently passed away from cancer and it is everything she can do to hold things together while she pays the bills, raises her child, and mourns the loss of her soulmate. The couple in the corner have been married for 45 years, and it was one arranged by their parents, one they never thought would last for nearly half a century. But as they grew together in life, they grew together in love, and now they’re traveling the colorful corners of the world. Some of the dapper businessmen are having affairs, and some of them love their wives more than anything in this world. Some of the millennials come from wealthy, but unhappy homes, and some of them were raised by parents who could give them nothing but love. And I sat there in the airport that morning, I experienced their stories and hopes and dreams. Sonder.
My favorite realization formulated by this experience, of course, is how God fits into each of our “vivid and complex” lives. How He loves us all, how He desires each of us to experience a fulness of joy. And I think God smiles when we grab dinner with an old friend, when we eat ice cream whilst watching chick flicks, or while we fall in love. He laughs along with us when our parents say something embarrassing, or when cute boys cause us to laugh until we cry. His heart fills with warmth and light when we pray together and sing together and dance together. Because He knows that without each other, we’re nothing. He knows we need each other, and that life is better because we don’t have to go it alone.
“Jesus does not want us floating through space or sitting in front of our televisions. Jesus wants us interacting, eating together, laughing together. Loneliness is something that came with the fall, and if loving other people is a bit of heaven, then certainly, isolation is a bit of hell. To that degree, here on earth, we decide in which state we would like to live.”
So, let’s live together. Let’s live noticing how everyone has a story, everyone has a past. The creepy man you work with is possibly a father whose kids no longer speak to him. The elderly woman down the street was once the most beautiful girl in the room. There is a story behind the eyes of your disgruntled vice-principal or behind the mask of that politician you hate. We can all have a little bit more patience. We can be a little more kind, a bit little less quick to assume. People make mistakes and act a little bit crazy sometimes, but they love just as deeply and passionately as you do, their lives just as vivid and complex as yours. People are people, and because we’re all just accidentally bumping into one another, running to our airport gates, and pursuing our own perception of “dream,” we may as well do it together.