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Everyone is the main character in their own story
June 11, 2013 5:21 PM   Subscribe

sonder - n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own (from the dictionary of obscure sorrows)
posted by desjardins (79 comments total) 125 users marked this as a favorite

 
See also: Douglas Adams's The Meaning of Liff.
posted by 23 at 5:39 PM on June 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Everyone is the main character in their own story

I dunno. I've always had the feeling I was an understudy to one of the supporting cast.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:40 PM on June 11, 2013 [14 favorites]


I love this. I will think of it incessantly.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 5:48 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


oh, and by the way, you're all goddam peons. Now make me a sandwich.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 5:49 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I clicked on that dictionary link, I have to admit that I feared it would be cringeworthy. It turned out to have some lovely and thoughtful entries.

I felt adronitis recently, as an acquaintance finally became a friend right before he moved away.
posted by umbú at 5:51 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.
posted by deathpanels at 6:07 PM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Really liking silience.
posted by nubs at 6:08 PM on June 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


I experience zonder frequently, perhaps several times per week. Mostly when I'm driving on the freeway. There's something about people being locked up in little boxes traveling at high speed that seems to trigger it.
posted by PigAlien at 6:15 PM on June 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


That was wonderful.

What I don't quite understand, though, is why this is a sorrow. Or primarily a sorrow. To me, it's not.

This is something I think about often, that floats in my awareness sometimes above, sometimes below, the surface. It informs my understanding of the world and other people and my values.

All the complex mysteries and loves and silences and textures of my life are paralleled, in their own unique ways, in the lives of every other person — every person I've ever seen and every person I've ever heard of and everyone else. And, yes, I'm the star of my life but every other person is the star of theirs.

Every life could be a hundred books, is a thousand fascinating stories. I find this truth to be profoundly comforting and also, in a way, astonishing. And sometimes overwhelming.

So I admit that there is, for me, some melancholy mixed into all this wonder because what I want, what you might say I yearn for, is to know those stories. I don't wish for all of them, I would be ecstatic if I could know only one of them, truly know it. But that isn't possible, the epic story of an actual lived life is too much to comprehend even when it's my own, even when I have my own memories of my lived experience at hand. And so that true, lived story of even those closest to me — family, my most intimate lovers and companions — is only available in the barest outline.

It's a world of infinite richness, texture, but for the most part I can only know that it exists, not experience or know it directly. There is, I admit, sorrow in this.

But it's mostly wonder. And a contentment. Everything that's been important to me, the beauty I treasure from my experience, I know it all exists subjectively, in some form or another, in the lives of other people.

We talk about this in terms of stories because our stories are examples of how we re-enact and externalize these moments and insights from our lives, we try to make things universal because in some sense we know that they're already universal, we're matching up that childhood morning with someone else's childhood morning. And while I love stories, I look at other people and know that they contain those stories and I know that everything that I value from my own lived life exists within everyone else, but in infinite variation, and much more besides. Nothing of mine will be lost, and neither will anything of anyone else's, because lives will continue to be lived and those childhood mornings will exist over and over, each one individual and precious.

Mostly wonder and joy. A touch of melancholy.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:16 PM on June 11, 2013 [25 favorites]


"Rigor samsa" - heh. And I have definitely been feeling mal de coucou for a while now; glad to have a name for it finally.
posted by GrammarMoses at 6:22 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


"This is my truth, now tell me yours"
posted by fullerine at 6:29 PM on June 11, 2013


I remember feeling this for the first time when I was 16, working as a mealtime assistant at a nursing home. I saw the daughters and sons and grand kids coming in and out just like my family did for my grandparents and I thought, I'm an extra in their little movies. I remember never having had that thought or feeling before. I don't know if its a thought or a feeling but it wasn't sad, just an observation.
posted by bleep at 6:29 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


This feeling really freaks me out when I see it. I guess I've been trained to think of myself as a PC and everyone else as an NPC, or myself as a character in an epic.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:29 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Namaste, bitches.
posted by yoHighness at 6:37 PM on June 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's another variation of the monkeysphere, in a way. I believe one of the biggest problems with humans is everyone's belief that they're so god-damned important. I mean, sure, your life is important to you, it's all you've got. But that doesn't make you special, really. Everyone is special and useless, important and insignificant. Just be nice and try to enjoy yourself. I try hard to remind myself how unimportant I really am (though I guess I'm blowing it when voicing my opinion). That was a nicely done little film, though.

I'd agree with Ivan that it's not that sorrowful, but it is kind of melancholy.
posted by Red Loop at 6:40 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


A friend of mine accused me the other day of suffering from "protagonitus" which I liked as a way of phrasing it.
posted by macrael at 6:47 PM on June 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Strangely I am not the main character in my story. I have yet to meet them. But I'm looking.
posted by Splunge at 6:51 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


The first time I really "saw" this was at a party on New Year's Eve after two of the worst years of my life, and that realization immediately broke me (temporarily) out of a prolonged depression I hadn't even realized I was in. I spent that whole night thinking "I can't let myself forget how this feels." It's weird; it's completely obvious so 99% of the time you can think about it and go "yeah, that's cool but of course" and for no discernible reason the other 1% of the time it hits like a ton of bricks. I like it. It makes me want to not be depressed.
posted by a birds at 7:03 PM on June 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


Don't be silly. There are no other people.
posted by shivohum at 7:05 PM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


See also: Douglas Adams's The Meaning of Liff.


Ahem. Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. I accept that I am in a minority vis-a-vis fawning worship of Adams' prose. I think it telling, that the only two books in this house with his name on the spine are co-author jobs (Mark Cadwardine was the other). Dude really needed someone to ratchet down his whimsy to bearable levels, in my view.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:14 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


"This feeling really freaks me out when I see it. I guess I've been trained to think of myself as a PC and everyone else as an NPC, or myself as a character in an epic."

Really? I'm very curious and, I want to be clear, non-judgmental about the variation among emotionally healthy people in this regard. Personally, I find it quite surprising that a) this isn't a kind of fundamental truth that's apparent to most people, and b) that many would find it bad or frightening.

I mean, I didn't attempt to write above why I'm not frightened or upset by this, but one reason, probably the biggest reason, is that the idea that other people aren't quite as important as me, that I'm not a minor character but the protagonist in their stories, that (as you wrote) I'm the PC and everyone else are NPCs — that frightens and upsets me. Terrifies, me, really. I don't want that responsibility. I don't want to be that important.

Obviously healthy people are aware that other people are real and as important as themselves. But this post and your comment make me wonder how much variation there is with regard to how deeply people are aware of this. Or, conversely, how much variation there is with regard to how much they prefer to not be aware of this because, as an inversion of my previous paragraph, I can see how being only equally as important as every other individual person among six billion people might make someone feel very small and insignificant.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:17 PM on June 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


I was about to come in and say what Ivan said - that this realization is not a cause for sorrow for me. It's a source of awe and compassion.

Of all things, it was this song by INXS that made me realize it first.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:46 PM on June 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I experience and think about these types of feelings/impressions/realizations far too often. There are words? Eerie. Surreal.

*quietly adds "sonder", "nodus tollens", "pâro", and "gnossienne" to vocabulary*

Gnossienne drives me slightly insane in ways I can't quite articulate; at what point can you ever really state that you truly "know" someone? As for sonder, I've always identified with that stranger in the background, nobody special, one of the extras. I live in my head, but even there I'm certainly not the protagonist of anything, nor would I want to be.

Anyhow. Finding words for these life phenomena really is surreal. Perhaps there's a word better than "surreal"?
posted by quiet earth at 7:55 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm a little in love with Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, even when they're not entirely sorrowful.
posted by immlass at 7:56 PM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Whilst I agree with Ivan Fyodorovich that the idea some think themselves worth more than another human is a baffling to me, I sometimes get a sliver of a glimpse at the wondrous mass that is humanity and it is overwhelming.

Even attempting to articulate it makes me feel like a child proclaiming some obvious truth as their own, I can feel 12 billion eyes rolling.

It does make me feel as though once the spell is broken, once our shared humanity is inescapable then perhaps we'll stop being monkeys.

Is this what it feels like to have faith?
posted by fullerine at 7:56 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]



Obviously healthy people are aware that other people are real and as important as themselves. But this post and your comment make me wonder how much variation there is with regard to how deeply people are aware of this. Or, conversely, how much variation there is with regard to how much they prefer to not be aware of this because, as an inversion of my previous paragraph, I can see how being only equally as important as every other individual person among six billion people might make someone feel very small and insignificant.


I didn't really notice it until people started calling me out for it on MeFi, but instead of thinking of everyone equally I sorta think of everyone as the protagonist of their own mythopoetic/archtypical journies and we're all bumping into each other. And since I naturally take the role of 'hero' in my story (though I guess 'put upon protagonist' might be a better way of seeing it) i classify other people into stock character types - The Sidekick, the Love Interest, the Antagonist. I'm not sure if there's an exact word for it but I sorta like to see things the way they work in Ulysses - we all live our lives, but our lives are an echo of mythological stories, and everything I do is somehow part of an epic.

Plus its terrifying realizing there's other people out there, and they're all CONCIOUS and THINKING... I used to sorta think that most people weren't as smart or as real as me.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:57 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


The video struck me as a little credit-card-commercial-esque, but man, yeah, what a lovely little dictionary thing.
posted by threeants at 7:59 PM on June 11, 2013


like, to use a meta-example, I became aware of this word last week, and i'm trying to figure out how this posting is linked to me posting it on FB or wherever I originally saw it
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:59 PM on June 11, 2013


I love this site so much. I've needed so many of these words my whole life. My facebook friends are already annoyed.
posted by _paegan_ at 8:12 PM on June 11, 2013


For me "Sonder" is a sorrow for the same reason that going to my local university's library for the first time in grade 9 was a sorrow. I had previously only seen small local libraries, and school libraries. Places where I could conceivably read everything on the shelves if I decided to dedicate myself to the task. Going into the stacks was like a rebuke. "No. There are vast realms of information that are, and must always be closed off from you.". The realization that everyone else is living a life as complex as yours is also the realization how limited your experience of the world actually is.
posted by Grimgrin at 8:19 PM on June 11, 2013 [35 favorites]


The MTA puts poetry up in the NYC subways which I read when I visit. Today I read Grand Central by Billy Collins which captures this same stories on stories perspective from a different (yeah why is it sad?) perspective.

Swap in Morgan Friedman as a narrator and fade out at the end to a company logo and you got a ready made ad for a new kind of telecommunications product.

I think I've lost the ability to enjoy such mood inducing media adventures naively without subliminally and cynically waiting for the inevitable product placement at the end. I'm so bad now that, when there isn't a product placement, I immediately insert the artist as the salesman advertising their skills to someone who will hire Morgan Friedman and slap a logo at the end of his next work.
posted by astrobiophysican at 8:35 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


My favorite is degrassé: "adj. entranced and unsettled by the vastness of the universe, experienced in a jolt of recognition that the night sky is not just a wallpaper but a deeply foreign ocean whose currents are steadily carrying off all other castaways, who share our predicament but are already well out of earshot..." Except that isn't really a sorrow to me, so much as one of my greatest joys, as close as it gets to a religious experience for me. What a beautiful way to encapsulate it though, and what a perfect word for it, since I'm assuming it's an homage to Neil Degrasse Tyson.
posted by yasaman at 8:38 PM on June 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


Poor people.
posted by symbioid at 8:44 PM on June 11, 2013


I found this to be the absolute opposite of pretentious. Maybe it's just my Buddhist upbringing but this is one of those things I always assumed kept every kid everywhere up at night, only to be ground out of us by adulthood's more pressing concerns. In a way it made me immensely grateful for the privilege of having spent my life broke and utterly unemployable, if only for the fact that I never really grew out of wondering about meaningless stuff like this. I mean, I'm sure I'd be even more grateful if I was someone who took that wonder and turned it into a career or a meaningful body of work, but STILL.

I choked up, despite the part of me that kept waiting for the insurance company logo, and it's comforting to know I'm not the only one. haha, one.
posted by Lorin at 8:50 PM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Is this what it feels like to have faith?"

Huh.

I'm an atheist and a materialist, but this sense of the realness and importance of others provides for me a sense of ... security? Meaning? This isn't the only thing that contributes to my sense of contentment with the cosmos (generally speaking), but it's possibly the most important.

"As for sonder, I've always identified with that stranger in the background, nobody special, one of the extras. I live in my head, but even there I'm certainly not the protagonist of anything, nor would I want to be."

I'm not quite like that — I don't more or less identify with the stranger in the background than I do the people in the spotlight and I am definitely in some sense the protagonist of my own life. It's not an epic, though. It's not an adventure, but it's not a farce, either. It's just a story.

"Places where I could conceivably read everything on the shelves if I decided to dedicate myself to the task. Going into the stacks was like a rebuke. 'No. There are vast realms of information that are, and must always be closed off from you.'"

That makes sense and I feel a bit of that. But the stronger feeling I have is just a happiness and wonder at the miracle that there are so many books. Maybe a part of me regrets that their totality is far beyond me; but the much larger part of me feels fortunate to live in a world where there are so many more books than I could read in several lifetimes.

"Gnossienne drives me slightly insane in ways I can't quite articulate; at what point can you ever really state that you truly 'know' someone?"

I haven't really thought about this stuff in such a directed way before now — I find that gnossienne doesn't bother me so much in the way you describe (or, really, as the word is defined), but it does make me a bit sad for exactly the same reasons as sonder makes me a bit sad. And I can't quite put my finger on what exactly is going on with this.

I find that I really, really want to know people. But it's not because I want to possess them in some sense, and it's not that I want to know them so that I can, I suppose, be secure with them. Well, no, I have to admit that the latter is a powerful force in my personality. But I think it's independent, though convergent, with the desire to know others in the way I'm trying to get at here.

And it's that I want to be able to say, or rather I want them to somehow know, that I understand. That I see who they are, that I get why a long car drive sometimes makes them want to cry, that I understand why their parents' dinner table makes them feel small and insecure. That the things that make them who they are and are those private inner truths that create significance from the events of their lives, that, basically, in there in that viewing room where they are looking at the world and the people around them I could join them somehow and say, yeah, I understand, you're not alone in here.

Which, just now it becomes sort of obvious why I might care so much about that.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:53 PM on June 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


I do tend to resent it when other people try to upgrade me from a supernumerary to a speaking role in their life movie when I'm just walking down the street or playing as a totally convincing conventional backdrop.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:13 PM on June 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


But you'll get your union card, so there's that.

Not sure what union, though.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:25 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


a life as vivid and complex as your own

I have met quite a few people who have caused me to believe that this isn't universal.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 9:27 PM on June 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is lovely. Thanks, desjardins.
posted by homunculus at 10:22 PM on June 11, 2013


"Is this what it feels like to have faith?"

Having spent time on both sides of that particular coin the answer for me is now:

"This is mindfulness."
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:27 PM on June 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


"This is mindfulness."

And leads to compassion.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:34 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Absolutely yes, Athanassiel.

Also does he have a word for that moment when you realize that there is a practical limit to human knowledge in the short run --the moment you realize that you cannot possibly live long enough to know all the things you want to know, that you will actually die, leaving behind a trail of locked doors and unseen vistas?

Because that one keeps me up at night.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:42 PM on June 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


"Is this what it feels like to have faith?"

Having spent time on both sides of that particular coin the answer for me is now:

"This is mindfulness."


That word is as meaningless as 'faith'.

What's the word for 'realizing that not only does everyone else have the same life as you, but with a combination of Tineye, Google Class, and Facebook you can find out about that life?'
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 10:46 PM on June 11, 2013


Also does he have a word for that moment when you realize that there is a practical limit to human knowledge in the short run --the moment you realize that you cannot possibly live long enough to know all the things you want to know, that you will actually die, leaving behind a trail of locked doors and unseen vistas?

Yes, there should be a word for that. For me, that happened when contemplating the huge stacks in the library and realising that even if I sacrificed re-reading my favourite books and only read new ones, I will never be able to read all the books I want to read. Life just isn't long enough. It did make me a lot more merciless with what I do read, though.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:49 PM on June 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


That word is as meaningless as

In a vacuum, sure. But faith is clearly very meaningful to a lot of people, just as mindfulness has meaning to me (and others I assume). It's a touch cruel to treat these words, especially in the context of the discussion we're having right now, as if they have no meaning. Isn't that driving at the same point as this dictionary of obscure sorrows?

Even more so: most of Koenig's words are neologisms. They are completely devoid of meaning...until he explicitly defines them. I personally would like to explain what mindfulness means to me but it would take a lot of words to do that, something I'm not fully prepared to do at the moment. I suppose in an effort to be pithy I oversimplified. Always a problem with these kinds of things. Ah, dismissal! Such an easy move.

Beyond the realm of quantifiable things there are experiences that we all have and it seems many of us spend a lot of our time trying to articulate that in some form or another. Some call it faith, or magic. Some call it mindfulness, or awareness. Others may not care to give it a name. But it's definitely there and so much of art, religion, philosophy, literature, poetry, and just plain old expression strives to connect with that unquantifiable thing.

Ironically I'm really trying not to be all "spiritual atheist" or whatever-silly-strawman about this. In the end it's not mystical. It's just something people observe from time to time and they try to define it and that turns out to be fairly challenging.

I'm glad so many people keep working at it anyway.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:07 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.


I like Eliot's take on it. And it resonates with me; I feel like a minor character in someone else's epic, like comic relief with the occasional nugget of wisdom, with unexpected weirdness instead of pratfalls. Everyone else is the hero of their story, and I'm a walk-on character in them that ties all the different narratives together.

... I wonder how much of that is the depression and anxiety. Hm.
posted by cmyk at 12:09 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


You need to force yourself, through an act of purest will, to see yourself as the protagonist (even a comic one).
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 12:26 AM on June 12, 2013


cmyk, that's almost exactly how I see myself too. With lots of time spent waiting in the wings for my next walk-on bit. I've worked hard to try to be my own protagonist, but it doesn't really take.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:55 AM on June 12, 2013


I read three pages again and I feel a little bit teary and I really want to read more but I know I shouldn't. I've been having a depression-heavy day and there's a moment of clarity in a lot of them where yes, I know what that's like, I'm not alone, but somehow when you string too many of them together, that feeling gets exhausting.
posted by NoraReed at 1:22 AM on June 12, 2013


Yes, there should be a word for that. For me, that happened when contemplating the huge stacks in the library and realising that even if I sacrificed re-reading my favourite books and only read new ones, I will never be able to read all the books I want to read. Life just isn't long enough. It did make me a lot more merciless with what I do read, though.

This. I've travelled this mental pathway too. Fairly recently, actually, and in an actual library.

It reminds me of being a kid and realizing, after really awesome moments like trips to special places, that I would probably never see that place again, certainly not in the same way, and that in my lifetime I would probably never experience the vast majority of things I wanted to experience. (Despite that, I was generally a happy kid.)
posted by quiet earth at 1:27 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


This. I've travelled this mental pathway too. Fairly recently, actually, and in an actual library.

Hmm. Borgesian is already coined, but it's almost there. Perhaps borgestalt, or borgesence?
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:55 AM on June 12, 2013


The Suñña Sutta, part of the Pāli canon, relates that the monk Ānanda, Buddha's attendant asked, "It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?"

The Buddha replied, "Insofar as it is empty of a player character or of anything pertaining to a player character: Thus it is said, Ānanda, that the world is empty.

posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:02 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Grimgrin: "The realization that everyone else is living a life as complex as yours is also the realization how limited your experience of the world actually is."

Yeah, everything you know, and everything you'll ever know, is just a penlight of knowledge shining around in a pitch-black universe of your ignorance. But there's a lot of cool stuff around you to look at!
posted by Red Loop at 2:19 AM on June 12, 2013


MetaFilter: A penlight of knowledge shining around in the pitch-black universe of your ignorance.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:45 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


This has the sort of melancholy beauty to it that defined Achewood as something more than just a comic strip.
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:57 AM on June 12, 2013


Spontainvy: The petty, envious, annoyed feeling that I, as a plan-ahead person, have when a friend has a spontaneous adventure and it turns out well, despite its unplanned, last-minute, damn-the consequences execution.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:07 AM on June 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


A friend of mine accused me the other day of suffering from "protagonitus" which I liked as a way of phrasing it.
Isn't there a novel in which this phenomenon functions as the central problem of the protagonist? Like, the actual main character of the story is merely a minor background character in some other, much more important and dramatic character's life, but he or she insists on being the focus of the story? Sounds vaguely Calvino-esque.
posted by deathpanels at 5:05 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead" (film and play)? They are grappling with being bit parts in Hamlet's story.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 5:26 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


This brings up a lot of… stuff… for me. On the one hand, I’m leery of things like this that put a romantic sheen on sadness of any kind, because I’m pretty sure that romanticizing sadness is not good for me at all. On the other hand, I can relate to so many of the definitions in the Dictionary, including sonder.

For me, sonder manifests less as sadness than as a kind of wobbling of my existential gyroscope. On a normal day, I can walk around letting the realness and depth of all the people I see just slip by me, almost as if they’re avoiding my own realness like dandelion seeds seem to avoid a reaching hand. But I have moments where the realness of other people makes contact with me, where they bump my gyroscope and it starts to wobble. And I don’t feel sad when that happens, I feel like I’m about to tip over and fall and just keep falling forever.

This is tied up with my introversion, for sure. I often find other people exhausting, even when I’m ignoring the fact that they are fully realized individuals. If I let that fact into my awareness, I get overwhelmed instantly.

One result of this is that I get really emotional about anything, but especially kindness. I suddenly choke up at any commercial, scene in a sitcom, passage in a book, etc. where someone is showing simple kindness. When I feel like this, anything and everything penetrates right past my cynicism and his me much harder than is reasonable.
posted by that's candlepin at 6:16 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


You need to force yourself, through an act of purest will, to see yourself as the protagonist (even a comic one).

I teach you the overman. Man is something that must be overcome. What do you do to overcome him?
posted by gauche at 6:21 AM on June 12, 2013


This is a thing that all of my favorite fiction takes into account-- the idea that every minor character is the center of their own drama, that every villain sees himself as the hero of his own story. It's something I try really hard to keep in mind when I write, too.

As for real life, I think this concept is why I like owning vintage things so much. The idea that even my stuff has a secret history, unknown and unknowable, and that I am just a chapter in its life, makes me weirdly happy.

(Although it's not always unknowable-- when I can, I try to find out the history. I recently tracked down the son of a woman who painted two 1940s flower paintings I found at a thrift store. He's in his seventies, and lives in the same small town in Kansas where his mother lived and died, and he told me stories about her. I already really loved her paintings, but now I treasure them.)
posted by nonasuch at 6:43 AM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


The 'sorrow' side of this doesn't come from realizing everyone else's life is vivid and complex. It comes from realizing that I am not a precious snowflake. For all my trials and failings, it's not special. It's remarkably unremarkable. I get to eat, I will (probably) not kill anyone, I can waste away a few hours having glyphs rendered on screens to hundreds or thousands of other humans who will also eat far more than is required to 'live'. And it's all normal and unexceptional.

It also reminds me of Dr Manhattan on Mars.

What's the name of the obscure sorrow where you have two completely different, yet completely justifiable views about something?
posted by DigDoug at 6:55 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


>Morgan Friedman

Oh man, Jesse Eisenberg is going to have your ass.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 7:40 AM on June 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


PigAlien: I experience zonder frequently, perhaps several times per week. Mostly when I'm driving on the freeway.

Me too! It usually comes to me as the thought "All of these people are driving somewhere."
posted by Rock Steady at 7:58 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I must have been thinking of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead. I shouldn't be allowed to write metafilter comments before I've had my coffee.
posted by deathpanels at 7:59 AM on June 12, 2013


I get that sonder-like sense when I look at the signature on one of those little unremarkable paintings in a home. I have a couple of those in my bathroom. I'll look at the name and I'll think about how the artist spent time on the painting and painted others and live(s)(d) a whole life and that painting with that signature is just the one tiny bit of that life I can see, the rest a complete mystery to me and always will be.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:43 AM on June 12, 2013


This is water. This is water.
posted by Freen at 8:46 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


What I don't quite understand, though, is why this is a sorrow. Or primarily a sorrow. To me, it's not.

The 'sorrow' side of this doesn't come from realizing everyone else's life is vivid and complex. It comes from realizing that I am not a precious snowflake. For all my trials and failings, it's not special. It's remarkably unremarkable.

For me, I've pondered this sonder concept for all my life, and it is a sorrow, a sadness at a lack of intimate connection with 99.99999% of the world's inhabitants. We can't know everyone, and we can't even know the people we like very well. That is sad.

For those of us who "fall in love at first sight" (several times a day), it can be tortuously sad.

I experience zonder frequently, perhaps several times per week.

Like I said, I experience it constantly, and there are lots of flavors. I'm generally a pervert, so I like to imagine the fact that everyone on this subway train has been fucked and I wonder how they like it. ;D

Personally, I find it quite surprising that a) this isn't a kind of fundamental truth that's apparent to most people, and b) that many would find it bad or frightening.

I think the notions of self and other are quite blurry pre-4, so fundamental is probably not the right word. But yes, most people realize the TV keeps broadcasting when you turn it off around 4 or 5.

And it's not frightening to me. It's overwhelming like modern physics, i.e. I have the capacity to realize everything I am missing but not the capacity to learn it. There are too many people are too many lives for our brains to comprehend.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:18 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I do wish it didn't have the cloying piano music, however. Too cliche.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:19 AM on June 12, 2013


The knowledge/reading books analogy doesn't work for me because curiosity and not mastery or anything pragmatic is my driving intellectual force. I enjoy it when my competence in a subject is enough to be authoritative or near-authoritative, but it's not ever my motivation. I've always just been curious about everything; it's probably the exact same thing that used to cause me to hike farther than I should and drive on strange roads when I didn't know where I was going — I guess I'm kind of a neophile. It's the experience, the high of traversing new territory, physical or intellectual, that motivates me.

So the fact that there's far, far more than I could ever hope to know or experience is actually something that makes me very happy, not sad.

In a way this is true about sonder and people. In this case, I do experience some of that melancholy for the reasons you and others have described. In some deep way, I really love people and want to connect with them and it makes me sad that it's so hard to do and that virtually all of the people are worth knowing and I cannot know them. But, that's still overshadowed by my happiness that they exist, and that it's not really a concern to them that I can't know them. Their lives are rich, my knowing them matters not at all to that. I'm happy that their lives are worth knowing about, even though I won't know them.

That said, there are people who live really limited, impoverished lives and when I think about them, it does make me very sad. It just now occurs to me that this must be a comfort in being a theist (for some varieties of theism). We usually think about those isolated and unhappy people being comforted by theist belief, but I would find it very comforting to know that there's an omniscience or metaphysical beings or whatever who really are watching all these lives, knowing all individual people, especially the people who in our world are the most isolated and forgotten. I don't need that sense of someone else knowing for myself, but it seems to matter to me about other people, especially the least fortunate.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:33 AM on June 12, 2013


No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I like Eliot's take on it. And it resonates with me; I feel like a minor character in someone else's epic, like comic relief with the occasional nugget of wisdom, with unexpected weirdness instead of pratfalls. Everyone else is the hero of their story, and I'm a walk-on character in them that ties all the different narratives together.

... I wonder how much of that is the depression and anxiety. Hm.


First draft:
AAGH I'M POLONIUS AAAGH AAGH
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:26 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm generally a pervert, so I like to imagine the fact that everyone on this subway train has been fucked and I wonder how they like it. ;D

Glad it's not just me.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:34 AM on June 12, 2013


This beats my idea of everyone living in their own TV show, or my friend reimagining Die Hard happening where ever we were.
posted by ZeusHumms at 12:01 PM on June 12, 2013


Sodor - n - the place you realize every random steam engine is living a life as vivid and complex as your own and really useful to boot.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:58 PM on June 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wander - n. The realization that each random colossus you slay was living a life as vivid and complex as your own.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:09 PM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I do find the feeling sad, although I can't place why. This is in a category of thoughts I often have which are kind of like koans in a way. Things which are obviously and simply true but when you reflect on them your mind goes [Keanu]"woah!"[/Keanu] and clears out for a second. For instance a similar idea to soden applies to places. There are small towns far away from anywhere you've been, which you'll never read or think about but which have a full working life - people stacking the supermarket shelves, serving coffee etc etc.


like Eliot's take on it. And it resonates with me; I feel like a minor character in someone else's epic, like comic relief with the occasional nugget of wisdom, with unexpected weirdness instead of pratfalls. Everyone else is the hero of their story, and I'm a walk-on character in them that ties all the different narratives together.

... I wonder how much of that is the depression and anxiety. Hm.
posted by cmyk at 8:09 AM on June 12 [2 favorites +] [!]


See although I often feel (falsely) like I am not in control of my own life but when I reflect on sonder I definitely place myself as a protagonist. However definitely a protagonist of the clichéd horror movie variety where everyone is shouting at the TV because they're making cretinously stupid decisions.
posted by Erberus at 1:13 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sodor - n - the place you realize every random steam engine is living a life as vivid and complex as your own and really useful to boot.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 8:58 PM on June 12 [1 favorite +] [!]


Hodor - n - Hodor
sorry couldn't resist
posted by Erberus at 1:14 PM on June 12, 2013 [6 favorites]




A friend of mine accused me the other day of suffering from "protagonitus" which I liked as a way of phrasing it.

Isn't there a novel in which this phenomenon functions as the central problem of the protagonist? Like, the actual main character of the story is merely a minor background character in some other, much more important and dramatic character's life, but he or she insists on being the focus of the story? Sounds vaguely Calvino-esque.


Apparently there's a Final Fantasy game like this.


Wander - n. The realization that each random colossus you slay was living a life as vivid and complex as your own.


see that game is where i most experianced profound empathy
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:11 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


see that game is where i most experianced profound empathy

I have so many feels about SotC. Don't even get me started.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:10 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


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