More on “sonder”

Here’s part of an e-mail which arrived as I was heading off to Thailand from my good friend and alert reader Jason P.:
I just wanted to drop a note to say I really liked your chapter on “Sonder” in your book.  I’m apart of a small monthly group at Faith Mennonite and we reflected on another new term for me called “the loving eye gaze” which would basically describe as seeing God in nature and others.  I immediately related this term to Sonder which you introduced me to and told the group about your book and the term Sonder. 

A thought that I had was that practicing Sonder is done in living one’s usual “mundane” life, but you almost need extra ordinary events (like the trip your taking now) to give us out side perspective and to realize the importance of the “other” the “different.”  It takes a shake up of our routine to notice things outside what becomes regular to us.  A shake up to realize that others are just as complex and interesting as ourselves.   

As a response to your Sonder chapter I was wondering if you could give more examples of how Jesus showed sonder.  I don’t have the book in front of me now, but I remember you do refer to Jesus showing sonder in how he wanted us to live abundant lives and how he illustrated it by dying on the cross (being our “supernova” or some such verbage you used).  This all sounds well and good, but still seems a little abstract for me.  I was wondering if you could provide a few scriptural examples of Jesus showing Sonder, perhaps in a follow up blog?  Or perhaps your wanting me as the dear reader to do that in my own brain, which I think I can do.  I thoroughly enjoyed your Sonder chapter, but I was left at the end feeling like I wanted more examples from Jesus showing Sonder. 

Jason, thanks for the great questions. Sonder is a concept from an artist named John Koenig and I highly recommend checking out his other coined terms and the videos that go with them. If you see a good one mention it in the comments! In preparing my response I had to go back again and look at his original definition to see if sonder is something which can be “showed”. It’s defined as a particular awareness, and so I do think it can be, in the sense that your actions reveal what you are and are not aware of. For example, my children do not seem to be aware that leaving the door open in our entryway which doubles as a laundry room, during winter, jeopardizes our washing machine; lines freeze, washer breaks, repair bill ensues. Their careless action reveals their general lack of awareness. The awareness that people have lives which are equally intricate as our own is something that mature people who are not constantly focused on their own needs and desires exhibit often. As I thought about this today I was travelling; I noticed the hotel pool was lifeguarded by a man I’d bet is from India or Pakistan. Somewhere he has a family, whom he likely sends money, he sits around all day caring for this rooftop pool and what else? Who knows?

So, then, Jesus fits that mold too. How about the time when Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well. “You’ve had five husbands,” he says. Not as an accusation, but demonstrating that he sees her life not as a passerby but in some sort of beyond-sonder intimate detail. I talked with my dad about that and he said, “yes, it must be a word of knowledge because it would drive you crazy to know everyone’s story in that much detail as you walk around.” I think that’s true. There are other times when someone might have gone unnoticed but for the fact that she dared to reach out and touch the hem of his robe. “Who  touched me?” The awareness is always there that people are walking around as shadows, perhaps appearing only once in his story, as perhaps he did in theirs. but the engagement wasn’t, at least so long as he walked in human form.
But he is always ready to default to the premise that they have great value. Greater than anyone sees on the surface. This lifeguard in Abu Dabhi may only make a few dollars a day, but the money he sends home may feed eight, or sixteen, mouths. He’s very valuable to someone, and that’s just economically speaking! The value Jesus saw in others, whether he knew how many husbands they’d had or not, goes far beyond their earning power. It’s the value of someone uniquely designed.

I’d love to hear other thoughts on how Jesus showed this awareness of others’ complex lives. I think there are lots of them, and lessons to be learned from each. One last comment: I agree that travel, and the arts, and other things, can really help us be more aware, notice others in new ways.  That’s an excellent point you made!


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The author lives in Goshen, Indiana with his wife and four children. He is self-employed as a leadership coach working with business executives, writers and other artists, and spiritual leaders. His clients enjoy business growth, increased vision and purpose, work/family lifestyle balance, and freedom from writer’s block.

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