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 and inherited craziness—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 an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
Last week, I was on a train, sitting on the second level. The conductor came by asking for tickets. Having already purchased my one-way ticket to Chicago Union Station on the Ventra mobile app, I was ready.
This is how the Ventra app works. You can buy as many tickets as you want and keep them on your app, ready to use whenever — you just hit the actual “Use” button on the ticket once you’ve boarded a train. Hitting this button activates the ticket for an hour or so before it “expires.” So, you show the train conductor your activated ticket on the app on your phone, and you can’t reuse a ticket once it’s been activated.
As the conductor made his way through the car on the first level (conductors never go up to the second level; passengers on the second level simply lean over the second level railing to show their tickets), I hit the “Use” button on my ticket and prepared to show it.
However, the conductor never even acknowledged me, nor did he acknowledge the other passenger sitting across on the other side of the second level.
The other passenger and I looked at each other with similar facial expressions — slight exasperation and furrowed brows, a nonverbal “Are you kidding me?” written on both our faces. I saw that he had his one-way ticket already activated on his app, too. Thanks to being neglected by the conductor, my neighbor and I basically activated a $7 train ticket for no reason. The shared frustration of being short $7 was evident with both of us. “Shouldn’t have used the ticket,” he said, a little bitter. “I know, right?” I replied, and the two of us sighed.
That was the extent of our interaction. But it was at this point that I was overwhelmed with that sense of sonder. I mean, it’s almost common sense at this point — of course everyone around me has a story of their own individual and unique experiences. But for some reason, it really just hit me after that brief exchange with a total stranger. I thought of everything that’s ever happened to me, every big or little thing that makes me me — from where I grew up, to who I grew up with, to all my dreams and goals… and I was just floored by a curiosity to know all of those things as it related to the stranger sitting across from me, because those things exist. In the same way that I have things about me that are unique — like, who else can say they’ve been on the BBC? — I know that this stranger must have his own little set of quirks and fun facts, too. And for some reason, I just wanted to know them all. I was fascinated, intrigued, excited at the very prospect that such vast, vast diversities of life experiences could just coexist in the same place.
I didn’t say anything, of course. I had my existential crisis in silence the entire train ride back to Chicago.
I’ve been living in the city for a little over two weeks now, and I am faced with this concept of sonder 24/7. The other day, I sat in front of the Bean for two hours, simply in awe of my surroundings. It was a beautiful day, arguably the warmest we’ve had so far this year — there must have been hundreds, if not at least a thousand, of tourists coming and going within those two hours alone. I was sitting directly in front of the Bean at a long picnic table, half-reading, half-people watching. I adored hearing all the different languages and accents, the laughter shared among friends and family members alike. And again, I was overwhelmed with the idea that every single one of these hundreds of people had unique stories of their own. I was just as overwhelmed with the desire to know all of those stories. I wondered how many people were from Chicago, like me. I wondered how many were tourists, and if so, where they were from, and what brought them here to the city…
Even as I’m sitting here in this Argo Tea Cafe (which has quickly become one of my favorite spots here in Chi-town) writing this blog post, I find myself looking around at the other individuals on their laptops, phones, or reading books, wondering where they were before they came to this cafe and where they’re going after this. I wonder what’s on their minds and what’s on their hearts, if they’ve suffered a heartbreak recently or if they’re on top of the world, or if any of them might be as fascinated by our shared surroundings as I am.
Thank God I’m a sociology major. With any luck, I’ll have a professional excuse to get to satisfy this ridiculous desire to know everything about everyone around me. I’ll get to conduct qualitative research — ethnographies, interviews, oral histories… oh, I can’t wait.