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Realising we’re not as different as we might think

By Scott Johnson

I remember when I was unhappy most of the time. In my late teens and early twenties life felt like a struggle. When I left home at 18 I was suddenly out in the world with nothing to hang on to. I craved reliving my childhood and the security of my formative years in a home with parents. Feeling nurtured. But then I remembered that that environment hadn’t really prepared me for the world I was moving into.

Finding liberation

Those first few years of leaving home were tough. I didn’t really know who I was or what direction I was facing. After going around in circles, of feeling okay then incredibly low, I found a great therapist. Finding solace in being able to share my fears with someone who would just listen attentively and share constructively was, at the time, liberating. She helped me in many ways, but the most memorable piece of advice she gave me was:

“Don’t think you’re the only one feeling like this!”

Hearing this was a revelation. I had thought I was the only one struggling and that everyone else had life completely sorted. That they all knew exactly what they were doing and where they were going. It helped me to see that all of us have things going on, things hidden from others.

It also made me think about how people saw me. Were they seeing me like that? In the way I thought of them?

When I look back at that young person I was, I wonder what he would have become if he’d had access to everything I know and feel now. Where would I be now…?

The thing is, to become who I am now I had to be that boy. I had to have that sadness. Be that sadness. I had to be that young man struggling to understand so I could begin to see how to understand. That comment from the therapist lit a touch paper…

Discovering ‘sonder’

I recently discovered a new word. It’s called sonder and is defined as:

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.

When I heard the meaning of sonder it woke me up. Language does that to me. The meaning of sonder is what my ‘early twenties self’ subsequently discovered in that therapy room. I hadn’t ever looked at anyone else in this way before. I hadn’t realised it. I was caught up in my own world, thinking it revolved just around me. I had missed that everyone is just like me. Trying to work out this thing called life.

Sonder allows us to look at others and see we are a part of them and they are a part of us. Our every interaction with someone is part of their story and ours of theirs. That just as they are moving though our world, so we are moving through theirs.

I can never know what is going on behind your eyes. I can have a hunch, but I can never know. With this realisation, this can now change who I can be when I’m with you. Can I listen to you in a deeper way? Be more attentive to your epic story because of sonder?

Experiencing the moments

Who knows how life goes. It’s one day, one week, one month, one year, five years, ten years. Life is a challenge!

The real challenge is to remind ourselves that these periods of time are made up of one thing: moments. Each moment makes up time in our life that meets the next one. If we can see that as the evolution of our lives, can we see that for others? By understanding sonder we can begin to see our play in others’ moments. We can begin to see who we can be for others

This is why contemplative practices like yoga and mindfulness are so rich with possibility for experiencing these moments. We take the time to look inwards so we can capture the moments when we look outward.

Most of the people we come in to contact with we will never meet again. Sitting on a train, walking down the street, in the shopping mall. These are all people going about their day, living a life just like us. All are people experiencing moments just like us. The real challenge is can we be compelled to capture these moments again and again, both when we are on our own and when we are with others? Perhaps being kinder, more helpful with these moments. So that we impact others’ moments in a more positive, heartfelt way.

By understanding the meaning of sonder, and seeing that we are all travelling within our own epic story, can we then actually wake up to our own story? Can we change it, move it, shift it, direct it? Can we play it out with as much awareness as possible? Living our lives with agency, intention, open to ourselves and open to others.

Can we have agency in seeing our own epic story and discovering what can be possible with it? Life is there to be felt, to be nurtured, to be discovered. Life moves through us, and we respond.

Choosing a sense of wonder

As our lives shift and move ever onward we can choose to contemplate and train our awareness. We can train our awareness to see ourselves as a process of life. We can train our awareness to discover the beautiful things that are often the simplest. Being reminded of nature, falling into relationships, that letting go begets a sense of wonder. Wonder of the intimacy we have between all of us. Wonder of the intimacy we have with the world. Wonder of the way we can interact again and again with purpose, compassion and resolve for living this life.

The therapist’s words, spoken all those years ago, have become prophetic for me.

I am not the only one feeling like this.

I have acted on those words more than any book I have read. They have propelled me to where I am now. To every now and then, remember that there are moments to notice, to listen to and to ultimately fall into.

And to see that others can feel the same.

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