Love is the difficult realization that something other than yourself is real. — Iris Murdoch
I want you to take a moment and relive a vibrant memory. Maybe it’s a particular Christmas. Maybe it’s that time you learned you got the job. Whatever the memory, though, I want you to focus on it—recall the sounds, the smells, the emotions. Relive it.
Then I want you to realize: every other person reading this blog had their own individual and unique memory.
With the same radiant vividness you recalled your own, someone else had an equally salient and significant memory. They had their own Christmases, their own moments of tear-rolling laughter. And the word coined to represent this realization is called sonder.
For every hardship you’ve ever endured, every dream you’ve ever harbored, someone else has had their own suffering and hope just as real and visceral as your own.
We experience the world as the main character in the movie, the plot tied up in our actions and encounters. Of course, there are co-stars, our family and close friends; there are minor characters, our acquaintances, our doctor or our barber; and there are extras. The voiceless individuals in the grocery store around us, the passengers in the planes flying above us.
But we often fail to realize that those extras, minor characters, and co-stars experience the world as the main character in their own movie just as complex and vivid as our own. Their happiness just as brilliant, their heartache just as cold.
And truly understanding the expanse of personal consciousnesses can really be quite humbling: to recognize that the same importance we attribute to our own hardships and achievements is equal to what others attribute to their own. The person waving the sign outside the restaurant. The jerk who cut you off on the freeway.
However, being attuned foremost to the outcomes of our own fleshy containers makes sense: it is through which we experience the world. But in turn, this produces some interesting psychological effects.
For example, the cocktail party effect is our ability to tune out multitudes of other conversations (as though at a party) while focusing specifically on one. And even though those other conversations are seemingly ignored, if someone says your name, suddenly you hear it. Heck, even if someone says a word that merely sounds like your name, it redirects your attention as if you’d been listening to them all along.
In fact, infants as young as five months recognize their name from a crowd of noises, and by thirteen months, this effect is fully developed.
According to psychologists, even though all these sounds “hit” our ears, we have a filtering process that unconsciously scans that noise for important sounds. So while we’re focused on one conversation, this filtering process goes on in the background, “alerting” us when it detects something important.
Like our names.
Now, just because we’re very self-focused it doesn’t mean that we can’t take time to think about and recognize the value of others’ own equally centralized experience of life.