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“Sonder” and A Bittersweet Realization on Elderly People

elderly people playing chess by Vlad Sargu

I’m at the beach, enjoying my morning coffee, a lovely breeze, and the 90s music. My friends are at home getting ready, so I’m enjoying my alone time. I scrolled a bit on my phone and wrote in my notebook.

Then, I started looking at the view, appreciating the moment, the striped beach umbrellas and small palm trees, and glowing sand. A parachute roamed the skies, the thought of the person flying it having the time of their life brought me joy.

And then, I spotted the elderly couple next to me. They seemed to be enjoying the moment as well, especially their conversation and each other’s company.

After my friend, Nikki, mentioned her intense people-watching at the airport the other day, we started talking about sonder.

Sonder: the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own

Strangely, it’s one of my favorite aspects of being human. 

“Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature

Usually, running errands gives me major sonder. Walking for hours on end, I end up crossing paths with a lot of people. 

Our paths might never cross again, ever. At that specific moment in time though, they did. Everything that ever happened to us led to the point where our lives intertwined.

Well, maybe it’s not that strange that I love sonder

The people we cross paths with could have a favorite shirt, a favorite movie, a favorite color that we’ll never know of. They’ll carry on meeting their friends, crying, going shopping, or swimming. They’ll get their heart broken, fall in love (unless they’re aromantic), fall off a chair, fall asleep… We’re all in each other lives in some way or another, even for a fleeting second, as a presence or a thought.

Jenny Holzer, one of my favorite artists, said it beautifully.

jenny holzer quote all things are delicately interconnected red color font Jenny Holzer's "Truisms" for the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day
Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms” for the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

A bittersweet realization

I had a bittersweet realization regarding the elderly couple next to me.

There’s so much we can learn from people who’ve been doing this unbelievable thing called life, way longer than we have. So many questions we could ask, and they probably wouldn’t have to resort to hypothetical “If that happened to me” answers, because it probably has happened to them.

Older people have witnessed war and famine and dictatorship. They’ve experienced true loss. They can advise us about our 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s. Some elderly people have been working for 30+ years, some married for 50 years.

And yet.

Unfortunately, despite their wisdom, they’re the most sexist, racist, everything-phobic close-minded people, filled to the brim with prejudices, bitterness and anger.

Bittersweet AF. I knew that there was an 80% chance that if I approached the seemingly lovely couple, I’d regret it.

If I were to join them for coffee, the magic spell would break. I let them enjoy their company, and I kept enjoying mine.

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