The Concept of 'Sonder'

Throughout the past year of prolonged quarantines, fluctuating sleep schedules, COVID-19 scares and cooking trends, we have also been introduced to the beloved (or be-hated) app of TikTok and its endless social media and cultural influences. Personally, I have not been blessed with the talents of Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio on my FYP as I tend to go on the app to restock on funny videos that I share with my friends at 3 a.m. or distress after an otherwise interesting day of Zoom University.

However, there was one video in particular that has always loomed in the back of my mind since the day it happened to show up on my feed. It was an artsy, gloomy video of a bustling New York street from a couple of years back. The street was lined with busy individuals seemingly on their own personal missions with individual purpose on a rainy day in one of the most highly populated cities in the world. The TikTok was about a word—a word I had never heard or read before in my life, but it summed up a variety of concepts and feelings that I think many individuals could relate to on numerous levels, especially in our present cultural reality. 

The word was “sonder,” a noun coined by John Koenig on the website The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows about eight years ago. He defined it as “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.” He went on to describe the concept as “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.” 

People Walking on Street Photo by Burst from Pexels

This in all honesty slightly blew my mind as I went down a rabbit hole that night trying to learn as much as I could about this new word. This concept was exactly what I was trying to pinpoint for so many years. That feeling like everyone is in their own personal “movie” that never ends (until it does), and there is no possible way to interact with or be extras in all of these “movies” located all around the world in a single, average lifetime. Equating sonder to our COVID-filled society amplifies its impact even further. The individuals lost over the past year, the lives impacted due to quickly changing variables, the virtual shift for almost all forms of communication.

Everything about the coronavirus and its consequences impacts this concept of sonder. Think of all the individuals you could have happened to connect with or personally touch in the past year on the street or in a cafe. What about the “movies” that ended this year? What about them? All the trips planned and deserted or the relationships broken or fostered. In all the ways that 2020 changed your life and the peoples’ lives around you, it has also changed the lives of every citizen, immigrant, health care worker, teacher, student, parent, etc.

That is sonder.