This isn’t a real word —
If by “real,” we mean something found in Merriam-Webster.
The word is “sonder,” and it was invented by a person who, well, invents words — a guy named John Koenig — and compiles them on a website and YouTube series (and apparently soon-to-be book) called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.
That background isn’t particularly important.
What’s important, is the definition:
noun. 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…
First of all, that’s beautiful.
Second of all — stop for a second and think about that.
Does it blow your mind (even a little?) to realize just how vastly complicated every. single. person’s. life is around you?
It did for my fragile little mind when I first saw the word a few years ago in a social media post.
Because we’re all the hero of our own story, right? With our own supporting characters, our villains (real or fabricated), our challenges with each chapter, our hopes and dreams that change or intensify as our narrative weaves itself along.
But at the same time, we’re merely the supporting cast in our friends’ stories. For some others, we’re barely extras. And for the immeasurable majority of the world, we’re not even a blip in their script.
We can take this any number of ways, but at the very least, pause to remember that other people’s experiences and feelings are just as real and valid as our own — because in their eyes, theirs is the real story, and we’re just a secondary character.
From a stepmom’s point of view, those “other people” are my stepkids.
My husband and I had joined both the kids and their mom (yep, all five of us together) for a day trip a few weeks ago.
And of that trip, a grand majority was spent walking. By the time dinner rolled around, we were all a little tired. And hungry. My stepdaughter vocalized those feelings —
But me being me, and her being 8 years old, I dismissed them.
“Oh you’re fine,” I told her. “You’re usually the bouncy one that WE can’t keep up with!”
Which, usually, is true.
But “usually” and “always” aren’t the same.
“No, I actually think she’s tired,” her mom pointed out.
And her mom was right.
Of course the kid was tired. And in her story, from her perspective, that was the most important thing right then.
Sure, “usually” she’s a perfectly happy, bouncy kid.
But she isn’t one-dimensional. She’s as complicated and varied as every single other person out there. And while yes, redirection and guidance are important sometimes on the adult’s part —
the kid is absolutely allowed to feel things that aren’t necessarily convenient for said adult.
Like when my stepson was heading into middle school last year. He stressed about it, because it was a big life change. And while I might have been tempted to brush it off (“how bad could it be, you’re only 11” — “oh, don’t be nervous” — “it’s gonna be fine”) — that wouldn’t have done him any good at all.
Telling him not to worry wasn’t going to make him not worry. The fact was, he was worried. Because it was his story. His narrative was taking a left turn, and all he could do was hold on for the ride.
He can’t be boxed into a convenient little package that comes into our home a few days a week, smiling and happy all the time.
He shouldn’t be. Because he’s his own person, with his own worries and emotions and motivations and challenges.
He’s his own protagonist, and I’m just a supporting character.
As we move along through summer, Adults With Kids everywhere are probably spending a bit more time with their kiddos — so it’s a fitting reminder for us that these little people we’re raising, these miniature humans, these kids we call “ours,” are their own people, too.
They don’t have as much life experience as we do — but they still have experiences. They still have a story all their own, and from their perspective, that’s the main narrative.
We’re pretty lucky we get to watch it unfold.
Originally published in The Herald News on July 7, 2019.