Crowds are a place we have all been. A place we have all been a part of. Walking amidst an ocean of strangers whose names you do not know and may never know in your heels, knee-high boots, flats, sneakers, and Oxfords is an otherworldly feeling. It’s a humbling one because it puts us in our place, reminding us of our true insignificance in the grander scale of things.
I have always fantasized about being a New York City hustler, crossing zebra lines with fifty others, rushing to work with piping hot morning coffee in one hand, my laptop and documents in the other, head down, just trying to do my part in society. We’re all situated on the same level in crowds, no one quite above the other; even if there were, we wouldn’t know it, and it wouldn’t matter. Hair colors blend into each other and you forsake the vibrancy of one eye color after seeing the next. Faces morph into one another and there are no means of our minds capturing all of them, save for those blessed with photographic memories.
There is a familiar, mundane feeling to know that you have been, on multiple occasions, an evanescent part of somebody else’s life. That you have brushed shoulders, exchanged lazy glances, nodded the perfunctory head, only to never see each other again. They carry on to do that with thousands—if not million—others, and so do you. We carry on with our own lives, floating within our paces and responsibilities, experiencing love and indifference on varying frequencies.
This is sonder. The realization that everyone around you is going through their respective phases in life. That even though they have stories that differ from yours, the fundamental emotions stay the same: love, loss, joy, sadness, madness. They have families and friends just like you do, only those wearing different names and faces. They are all striving toward the finish line, longing for catharsis and liberation.
Sonder comes in a fuzzy feeling, like being swaddled in the warmth of your blanket as the morning sunlight splits through layers of curtains, cut by the breeze. Often laced with gratitude, it reminds us we are all cogs in a bigger machine, pieces in a larger game. While that minimizes us in the grand scheme of things, I don’t view it as a necessarily bad thing.
It’s comforting to know that somebody else might be going through what I am going through at the same moment, no matter the degree of severity on the spectrum. If I’m happy, I know somebody else is happier than I am, or less so; if I’m upset, I know somebody else has it harder, or that they’ve made it through the storm and emerged stronger. If it’s any consolation, it pins the extremities of life down on a map and shows us that in one way or another, strangers as we may be, we are still in this together.
Because at the end of the day, who are we if not individual facets of the same gem on a spinning blue dot?
We learn from people we know, and then strangers. We acknowledge beauty through that subtle head nod, communicate pains through these prolonged stares, and try to figure out the meaning of life together at red lights, stop signs, grocery store queues, and gas station aisles. Those moments belong solely to us and a stranger who would soon be lost in another crowd. They are ours to keep, and ours to forget.