I imagine there are many “boomers” and middle-aged parents like me out there who were forced to ask their kids the meaning of the term “woke”. Which is why I was less ashamed to admit my ignorance of the word “sonder” when a family member recently brought it up.
Have you heard of of the word “sonder”?
She used the word in response to the meme below that I posted on Instagram. It was my self-deprecating way of summing up my feelings about our return to a social life (or not) after COVID restrictions were downgraded recently in Sydney.
Clearly, the meme was the perspective of an introverted, socially anxious person who gets through most social events by drinking heavily. But evidently, she didn’t get the memos about my social anxiety, and because it’s always a tad embarrassing for a writer when someone uses a word we don’t know, it was clear I would have to check out its meaning to make an appropriate response.
According to Wiktionary, the definition of “sonder” is:
“The profound feeling of realising that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own.” Wiktionary
It is the knowledge that everyone has a story, or in other words, a great way (in theory) to prevent society “judging books by their cover” and increasing our compassion. On a personal level, it also links to a piece I wrote a few months back about the masks people wear — particularly those with mental illness — in their struggle to fit in with the expectations of society.
We need to have a “sonder” moment, where we realise that we aren’t the only ones with feelings, dreams, regrets and hopes. Annie Cohen
There is an obvious link between being “woke” and “sonder”, although that’s not to say that we need to be or experience either to feel compassion for those less fortunate than us.
Our “stories” come in many different shapes and forms, nevertheless, it is always surprising to learn about the way life has f*cked over someone as seemingly privileged as the wonderful Grace Tame, for example, winner of this year’s Australian of the Year award.
Many of you won’t know Grace — an engaging, Australian woman in her twenties whose courage and determination to fight the Tasmanian legal system, is currently inspiring abused women across our nation. For, in spite of the fact that Grace does not fit into our false stereotype of victims of rape, she is living proof that 1) everyone has a story, 2) no one is exempt from trauma, and 3) not all victims look like the visual we have in our heads of the way they are supposed to look — in much the same way that rapists don’t necessarily look like rapists.
Grace is the perfect example of someone with a story, that is not necessarily pretty, but needs to be heard.
Sharing our experiences of trauma with others may help the healing process, which was one of the main reasons I started my blog eight years ago. The original premise for My Midlife Mayhem was to journal the unravelling of my life as I entered peri-menopause, whilst juggling our son’s struggles with mental illness. And in the time since I pressed publish on my first post, I’ve lost count of the number of times readers have reached out to me about their own, similar experiences in the form of “mad” uncles and “different” siblings.
One of the main objectives of Grace’s work is to encourage women to share their experiences of sexual assault to help remove the shame and stigma which often goes hand in hand with abuse. However, as she pointed out on QandA last week, it is not always an easy process for victims to revisit those places of trauma and talk about them publicly, hence it requires a level of patience, lack of judgment, and compassion from those who engage with them.
Interestingly, though, whilst there has been a marked increase in awareness about previously taboo topics like mental illness, we continue to skirt around confronting topics like child abuse — especially when it comes to discussing them with children.
And that worries me. Because I know from experience that by shielding our children, we risk stunting their emotional development — something I was guilty of when my kids were young and I let my anxiety get in the way of common sense — potentially setting them up to fail.
By shielding our children, we risk disempowering them, making them less resilient, less empathetic, and more entitled.
One of the best examples I've seen of this type of “helicopter” parenting was when I worked in education and we had to run through our lockdown procedure. Each time, there were always several parents who were extremely vocal about their concerns about our use of the word “lockdown” — a word they believed was too frightening for their children.
One of the best examples I of this type of “helicopter” parenting was when I worked in education and we had to run through our lockdown procedure. Each time, there were always several parents who were extremely vocal about their concerns about our use of the word “lockdown” — a word they believed was too frightening for their children.
I like to think I am “woke” and aware of issues of social and racial justice, and I also believe that certain personal tragedies have shaped me into a more compassionate person. And a large part of my job as a writer is to analyse people and their circumstances closely, to peel back their layers and discover what challenges they had to overcome to achieve their goals — like Joe Biden, for example.
I would add, however, that I have also learned the importance of recognising that some people who experience trauma never overcome it, no matter how hard they try, and it doesn’t make them necessarily stronger, either. And we shouldn’t punish them for that.
Suffering does not automatically make us stronger. For some people, trauma stops them reaching their full potential and functioning on a daily basis. It can make their lives pretty unbearable. Which is where the importance of “sonder” and being woke comes in. And that’s why, when I started to share my parenting struggles with others, the main objective of my outpourings was to offer them an indirect source of comfort, to make them feel less alone. I wanted to give them a virtual hug. And from a selfish perspective, I wanted to meet other parents dealing with the same shit as me.
I still believe that by sharing our secrets and traumas, we help remove the shame and stigma of those experiences, just like we are doing with sexual harassment, menstruation, and transgenderism.
And like Grace is doing in her work.
There is no doubt in my mind that sharing our struggles helps lift the weight of shame, makes people feel less isolated, and strengthens their commitment to keep going. And I have the utmost respect for those who reciprocate, who find the courage to rip off their mask for me, to expose their vulnerabilities for my benefit — because it’s no easy feat.
Clearly, being “woke” and “sonder” are vital for the growth in our society — especially in our current climate, where inequalities tend to be brushed under the carpet. And yet, I am continually amazed at how defiantly resistant some people are to kindness. Which means that the only way to effect the changes we need is by giving the microphone to the voices of the marginalised.
Exactly what activists like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Malala Yousafzai did. In spite of the loud voices of their critics — who accused them of being hysterical, emotional, attention-seekers, and lefties — they stuck their necks out for their beliefs.
“Sonder” is the knowledge that everyone has a story. And whilst I am fully aware that keeping an open mind and listening are qualities that are overrated in our society, is it really that hard to take a pause and think about the bigger picture before we judge?