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!


Abu Dhabi: what is wealth?

What a dry place, and yet this city founded on your consumption of oil has water from somewhere. Enough for pools to swim in, bottles to drink for every guest. We went through customs, got a hotel room, went to that rooftop pool and Jacuzzi, sat on the sun deck, relaxed, looked out over the city. It’s a marvel, even if Dubai is showing them up. There’s a Ferrari theme park here, etc. But… when the oil, a.k.a. the money, dries up, what will be left here? Nothing.

On the plane ride in, I watched a couple gangster and spy movies. Gangster’s lives make for interesting movie scripts, but at the end, there’s a little footnote. “Died in prison” or whatever. I reflected on how I, and many of my friends to an even greater degree, take risks on a daily basis, risks that result in travelling the world, risks that can even land us in prison, it’s true. There are lots of ways we go through similar stresses that gangsters or spies do, travelling the world, but without the first class tickets or white tuxedos, and many fewer martinis. Admittedly, white wine on the plane. If it’s free. But the results are not the same, the effects upon our psyches, because instead of death, we hope to bring life. Instead of wealth as our goal, wealth is our goal. Just a different kind. The kind that builds cities that outlast oil.

What I am getting at here is that what we chase and hope for is a diamond, a watered city in the desert, but it’s one that doesn’t shut down for lack of funding. Ever. Now that’s real wealth. And what does it cost you to live there? Read to the end.

Isaiah 43:18 Forget the former things;

do not dwell on the past.

19 See, I am doing a new thing!

Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

I am making a way in the wilderness

and streams in the wasteland.

20 The wild animals honor me,

the jackals and the owls,

because I provide water in the wilderness

and streams in the wasteland,

to give drink to my people, my chosen,

21 the people I formed for myself

that they may proclaim my praise.

General Awareness

General Awareness was hiking through the woods when Major Distraction came zipping along in a jeep and caught up with him.

“What are you looking for, General?”

“Everything,” replied the General, “and nothing in particular, just keeping my eyes open. At least, nothing I can really define right now. I’m sort of, wow, you got that jeep tricked out pretty sweet.”

“Thanks for noticing! Yes, and it’s faster than walking, you can get where you’re going easily with it and find just about anything around here; want a ride? I can take you anywhere you want to go, and we can find whatever you’re looking for! Look, up ahead, there’s a great view of the valley,” Said the major, bouncing in his seat.

“It’s very nice, but, I think I’m looking for someone who’s afoot; I think I’ll have to walk just to remember what or who it is, and besides I think you have to sneak up on it,” said the General.

The Major roared away laughing. When he was gone, the General sat for a few moments gathering his thoughts. Then he gazed up into the trees. He looked at them one at a time, but soon, he saw the forest. “Ah, there you are,” he said, “I knew you were right around here somewhere.”

“Yes, I’ve been here all along, hiding in plain sight. But you can always find me just by being yourself,” said a voice.

“You’re always so good with your camouflage, Colonel O’Truth!” Said the General with a smile.

“Would it be any fun to find me if I wasn’t?” Replied the Colonel.


Now that, right there, that’s Colonel O’Truth if I ever saw it.