As a child, I vividly remember staring for hours out the window in the back seat of my parents’ car, scrutinizing nearby people stopped at the red light or passing us on the highway. I’d see a driver singing her favorite tune, a couple absorbed in some deep conversation, or an entire family sitting quietly inside the car. Inevitably, I would start making up stories in my head and wonder what brought them here, at that intersection, at that moment. My imagination would take me far away, and wouldn’t rest until long after the car had disappeared in the rear window. Oddly, the reflection would sometimes be so intense that it almost felt like my mind was slipping out of my own car to join them for a brief moment.
I’m not a child anymore, or so I’m told, yet these episodes never truly went away. Walking down Mass avenue, or cruising along Vassar street on my bike, I often find myself staring for a few seconds at the random student passing by, wondering what they might be up to, or what their life must be like. Recently, I discovered that there is a word in English that describes this exact feeling, this curious sensation of realizing that everyone has a story. That everybody is going somewhere. And that word is sonder. It almost feels odd to me that so much can be condensed in one single word, so I’d like to unpack it again to tell you about my own experience of sonder.
There is a famous quote from Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, that I particularly love: “When you tell [grown-ups] you’ve made a new friend they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”
This quote resonates with me at many levels. Mostly, it aligns with how I tend to approach interactions with others. When meeting new people, I find myself wanting to quickly pierce that protective shell we all hide ourselves under. I can’t help but feel the urge to skip the superficial talks, the straightforward facts, to ask the questions that do matter. Those questions that let me take a peek at the authentic part of you. Ironically, I must say, these are the questions that become harder and harder to ask as we grow up. That is probably why I envy so much the innocence of the child I used to be.
The reason behind this desire to dig ever deeper into other people’s thoughts and feelings is not entirely clear. Perhaps a part of me just wants to be reassured that this inner voice, this constant and chaotic chatter that goes on in my head, also goes on in other people’s head. That I am not alone experiencing fears and joys. By scratching beyond the surface, I get to recognize parts of me inside others, and likewise recognize parts of them within me. This is why I titled this piece “L’Autre, c’est moi”, which imperfectly translates into “I am the Other.”
Throughout the years, like many others I’m sure, I’ve learned to inhibit these instincts. I’ve become quite good at identifying grown-ups who’ve forgotten the child they once were. When I do, I’ve learned to ask questions they like to answer. My biggest fear, however, is that I might be wrong. That I might be in front of someone who genuinely wants to share their story with me, but I am unable to see it. That I may have put on my mask too early and turned them away. I just wish we had a code, like children. Perhaps something as simple as asking a question that truly matters, like what their favorite color is... Mine is red, and has always been.