A post came across my dashboard on Tumblr back in December and it gave me more than a moment of pause. It was an entry from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a project by John Koenig that involves making up words for phenomena that we as human beings might experience over the course of our lifetime. The word was “sonder” – and I am convinced that this idea of sonder is something that can revolutionize the way we see our fellow man, change the world, and it could very well be the key to peace in the world.
So what is this amazingly obscure sorrow that has the power to alter the world so wonderfully?
I firmly believe that if each and every human being took a moment to stop, realize, and respect the humanity of each person with whom they interacted, there would be no more violence: no more wars, no more euthanasia, no more abortion, no more torture, no more capital punishment, no more abuse, no more slavery. Because if we realized that the human being in front of us has hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions, love and remorse, a future and a past – if we relate to the human being in front of us as someone so complex as to be just like us in most ways but the minute particulars – then we would be struck by an immense sense of awe and near-reverence.
Our culture is one so comfortable with throwing away human beings: whether it be in the case of abortion, where doctors neglect the truth of science for some mixed up hierarchy of “rights” and a sizable paycheck, or in the case of the death penalty where we right off the problematic prisoner with an unsavory past instead of working for reconciliation and an opportunity to contribute to society (even in the little ways). If the mother choosing abortion rehumanized the preborn child within her and recalled the intricacies of the little body, the little mind, the future and the past of this tiny human being and all of the hopes, dreams, fears, and more that the child has in store in his or her future, we would be well on the way to bringing about a culture of life. But it also means that we all see the complexity in the life of the mother, too, and value her life and respect her concerns as valid and do our utmost to ensure that she sees the life of her child as just as valuable as her own, as well as giving her the support that she needs so she may carry her child with confidence. Likewise, rehumanizing the prisoner on death row means that our media stop calling people “monsters” and rage in calling for an eye for an eye; it means looking at the prisoner as one failed by those people in their life who could have helped, looking at them as they were as a child, perhaps troubled and alone, bullied and out-of-touch. And it also means that we see all the complexity of the child growing up who one day becomes a killer: did they need mental healthcare that just wasn't provided? What resources could we have provided to prevent violence from hitting our streets? How can we see the complex human being beneath the title of “murderer” now that the crime is over and our society is safe from any possible harm from the convicted? And finally, what can we do to bridge the gap and offer them and the victim's family and friends an opportunity at reconciliation?
If we have this sonder for our fellow human beings, the people we sit next to on the bus, the people we pass on the highway, the family in the car next to us at the stoplight, the couple drinking coffee and speaking low over a diner table, the old man slouching on a park bench, just think of how we would approach them. It brings the “Golden Rule” to a much more intense, personal level. It transfers the magnitude of our own life to the passing lives of others. It brings us out of the “matrix” in our own head that sees others as only figments of imagination (because, let's be honest, it's rather difficult and somewhat exhausting to respect the complexity of each individual's life), and into the reality that is true for each and every human being.
To sonder is to rehumanize – to transfer our own understanding of how difficult and beautiful and awful and awesome it is to be human – for every single human being. We could no more ask for a bomb to be dropped on our fellow man nor propose they die by scalpel, vacuum, and forceps before birth if we took sonder at their existence. If we understood them as like ourselves, we would not wish them ill; we could only work for peace.
For more information on Sonder and the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, see: http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/post/23536922667/sonder http://vimeo.com/80318195
Photo is a still from Sonder video on Vimeo