In high school, because of mine and my mother’s disgraced retreat from a repossessed mobile home to a rundown apartment complex resultant of her bankruptcy, I had a 45 minute commute to high school in my hand-me-down 1991 Buick Century, Bonnie. I traveled through an affluent suburb, down old state route 421 to my rural high school at a time of the morning where the majority of motorists were headed in the opposite direction to the economic centers of greater Winston-Salem.

What this amounted to was a lot of sitting in traffic while driving due east into the sunrise in the adolescent semi-consciousness of being forced to operate in the unrealistic circadian constraints of the adult world. In my state of suspended post-dream, preconscious reasoning I often took micro-naps with my eyes open, sitting at impossibly slow stop lights, timed for vastly smaller crowds than now drove these roads and the physical reality in which I was present would meld with the egolessness of being asleep.

This was dangerous – I once t-boned a blond, future captain of industry in a hunter green Ford Explorer and totaled Bonnie [shockingly, in retrospect, I had car insurance at this time] – but also an immersively transcendant, human experience. In that Mount Tabor neighborhood, built by old tobacco money and red-lining, I daily experienced protracted sonder.

Sonder is apparently not a “real” word, which is to say that it has no etymological legacy of legitimacy, but is a neologism specifically invented to put a word to a feeling. It is “real” in that the feeling it is meant to encapsulate is real and could potentially have never been an experience that needed coinage in older times but is nonetheless a modern experience in want of a descriptor. According to Wikitionary – another thoroughly modern abstraction that leverages the power that lies at the heart of the term – sonder is, “the profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.”

I would sit at the stoplights and watch the people sitting in their cars and be overcome with our shared humanity. “Those people are just like me.” And it would flood over me in ineffable waves of intersubjectivity. It was my favorite part of my senior year of high school. It felt like a secret of adulthood that no one knew to tell me to expect: look at all those people out there. You are real. You are exactly the same as me. I am just like you.

Now that I am 20 years distant from this revelation, I understand that not all people experience other people as truly real. They are secretly incredulous that others entirely exist. None of those other humans in cars ever became named individuals to me [even the boy from the neighboring high school with whom I became irrationally angry after I slammed my car into his car in the intersection leading to his high school]. Doubtless almost none of them ever noticed me personally as not background [except maybe the boy I hit – and certainly his mother]. But I am still overcome by their continued humanness even now and can recall the feeling of their embodiment whenever I am pressed into contact, or the simulation of contact, with anonymous tides of humans.

The internet is such a place, made of the collective lives of distant but real humans [and of course cat gifs and porn and Russian bots]. Though my physical presence is not of the internet, and I certainly experience real life as real, I feel my at-home-est among people here with the other abstractions of humans. Some of that is doubtless because of the stripped down quality of real human life and the performance of personality that exists on the internet. We are to believe that online – as opposed to irl – is a place where we make ourselves for the consumption of other people [and data miners], but this distinction is a difficult one for me to believe. Yes, online people are heavily curated, but it is laughable to suggest that they are not also so in real life. So much of being a human is about what one wants other people to think being an individual person is, about the signaling of status, and identity, and power. Personally, I think people notice it more online because it represents a new set of rules they had to learn to do the same human trick in a new medium.

As a person on the autism spectrum – an autistic person, a person with autism – I am to understand that I am not entirely human because I require a blueprint for the rules of the real world that neurotypical people navigate with automaticity, but I really think that neurotypical people are sort of one-trick ponies. Sure, you all excel at the immediacy of being irl, but you’re apparently deeply fatigued by sitting in zoom meetings in all day. Congratulations: that feeling you feel right now in the cross-currents of a mis-managed global pandemic amidst the failure of late capitalist, work/life imbalance is my lived experience. So zoom is hard for you and finally I feel like we are on equal footing. And yes, I know #notAllNeurotypicals Don’t worry: most of my friends are neurotypical, I understand.

I am also to understand that having neurodiverse wiring means that my theory of mind is impaired, which is to say that I have limitations in understanding the motivations and inner experience of other people [but neurotypical people have perfect theory of mind despite being unable to imagine my perspective]. This is “true” inasmuch as I have difficulty doing this on the fly, while I am navigating the stimulation of being in a grocery store or a staff meeting that should have been an email. I forget when someone at my medical insurance company is talking to me on the phone that they, like me, are often frustrated and that the words they are using might mean different things to them in that moment than they mean to me – referencing all the many definitions that I have for how other people are allowed to misuse certain words. But really that deficit is in the processing of the moment not in my overall experience of other people.

I love people. All people really. I love their poor and noble choices, their honor and bravado, their tenderness and cruelty, their limitations and limitlessnes. I just don’t understand all the ways that are built into them to undermine themselves in service of a larger group, even knowing that group cohesion is our species’s superpower. I don’t participate well in the synchrony of human murmurations, which I know means that from an essentialist, socio-biological standpoint I am a liability to the trajectory of what-has-thus-far-been human. I am not out of step with others because I am contrary – though I am contrary – but rather because I didn’t know [and can’t completely believe that] we were all living in a flashmob.

I want to belong to other people, but most of belonging is a set of behaviors that few people can articulate and that – if post-modern angst can be my guide in deciphering – feels hollow to almost everyone because it is at the expense of authenticity. Authenticity, like the frequency of autistic individuals in the general population, is new to humanity [about as new as “humanity” is to humanity]. I have to intellectualize things that other people are pre-conscious of, which makes me uniquely positioned as a mirror to the unexamined motivations of people generally: I have thought about this.

At this time in history, we all want to be ourselves but we cannot slough off the basic programming of needing to adhere to norms above being individuals. This is why we get it wrong. We say that freedom is about not wearing a facemask when it should really be about having healthcare and sick leave. We say that self expression is about the things we own instead of the person we are and the things we do. We are new at authenticity. We are using old rules that we can’t articulate to make current decisions.

I am supposed to be sub-human. I am to understand that the best parts of me are accidentally humanly possible instead of human by design. And yet I viscerally and fundamentally understand that I am as human as everyone else. I am just like you. You are exactly the same as me. You are real.

In my current life I commute through the internet, instantaneously joining all the other humans out there collectively being them selves. I don’t sit at stoplights any longer and in fact rarely user my car, but the sonder remains.

Snow covered town as viewed from a tall hill overlooking a wide valley with other mountains in the distance.
Look at all those people out there. You are real. You are exactly the same as me. I am just like you.

She is a recovering evangelical who loves to dance.

He needs a drink to forget the sadness he feels over the unmourned and sudden loss of his mother.

They are unable to understand that the chasm of misunderstanding between their parents defines their relationship to their partner.

He is confused by the pace of modern life and just wants to drive to the hardware store, but the roads have all changed.

She is surprised that others react negatively to her ambition and constantly wars with her desire to please others instead of herself.

They feel the hand of god in everything they do, but can’t belong to any house where god lives.

She is always sick but half believes everyone that it is all in her head.

He wanted to be a professor of art history but became a father and a middle manager instead.

They are loved and safe, but something is still missing.

I am just like you. You are exactly the same as me. You are real.

One thought on “Sonder

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