Lovers of language will be familiar with The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, an Internet project that creates new words to help describe emotions that are, well, difficult to describe. The project is a beautiful experiment on the fine line between babble and Babel. Among its more popular invented words is one you’ve very likely seen in a meme or a listicle somewhere, whether or not you knew of the Dictionary in question. That word is “sonder”.
The Dictionary defines the word as follows: “the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”. That’s the abridged version. An achingly hipsterish video accompanies the entry: it reminds the viewer that while they are the protagonist of their own life, around them are a supporting cast and a multitude of extras, each with a life that pivots around themselves. And there, the viewer in question is only an extra.
I understand the popularity of the word. It gives a person pause, and for a few seconds or minutes they experience the humbling amazement that there are realities, perspectives and stories other than their own (honestly, not much of an epiphany at all if one likes to read). But what does that realisation really do other than reinforce the centrality of one’s own narrative? The truth is, every single day we rub up against the narratives of other people. And too often – out of urgency, protocol, fear or sheer indifference – we fail to register them, unless something they do or say or don’t imposes on our attention. If you really think about it, a sonder (the Dictionary defines it as a noun) is not a moment of connection; it is simply a break from a permanent cloud of self-involvement.
I’m not sure if The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has a word for the opposite of sonder, the feeling I’d describe as the wall one hits against in certain individuals despite one’s core curiosity about and attunement to others. The people you see often, who allow you only the most functional and superficial access to their nature. You have to know them, professionally or circumstantially, and you form an impression of them that has nothing to do with who they think they are, only what they choose to not do.
Surely that is not such an obscure sorrow, the knowledge that someone trusts themselves so little that they do not trust the world.
What makes me like a person, whether at first impression or as I’m getting acquainted with them, is a willingness to not conceal the fact of an interior life. Not the details, necessarily, just the fact itself. A lightness with which the intricate is yielded: a mood, a glint of the eyes, a curve of the lip, a few open words. A lightness that is partly the absence of guile, but more so the acceptance that this is how we are, all of us, no more than pure emotion scaffolded by body, name, role, place. And how sad and wasteful it is to pretend otherwise.
You will come to know a person whether they let you in or not. And they will come to know you, or a version of you, composed of the truths you give away and the lies you live by. Even if I’m wrong and a dramatic sonder is the most us egotistical human beings are capable of, imagine: in that moment of sondering, when someone looks up and catches some deep, unguarded glimpse of you – do you think you’ll like the you that they’ll see?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 2nd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.