‘The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passing 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.’Wikipedia, Definition of ‘Sonder’
I’m sure the title of this blog post will be met with glee by some of my closest friends, so I may as well get the story out of the way. When I was 18, I learnt the word ‘Sonder’ for the first time. I can’t remember where I heard the term; I have a suspicion that a band I liked put out a song with that title, but I’m not sure what band and I don’t have any recollection of the song itself. I quickly looked up what the word meant, and its definition immediately struck a chord with me, as it perfectly framed something that I had thought about many times but had never managed to properly define. It is such an interesting concept and one that still occurs to me frequently.
The most recent time it occurred to me was when I was sitting in a traffic jam earlier in the week. There were roadworks on, and some temporary traffic lights were in place to control the three-directional traffic. In a classic case of ‘The World vs Me’, I watched as the lights seemed to let every car come through from the other directions, then only allow about 5 cars through from my direction before turning red again. I was getting wound up despite having nowhere to be, and it all was pretty inconsequential whether it took an extra 5 minutes for me to get through these lights and get home. At some point, I became cognisant that I was being stupid, and I started telling myself that it did not matter and that I was one of many people who were experiencing the exact same thing at that moment. Then I started to think about the fact that someone else might actually be late for something in that queue – a spouse’s birthday party, picking their child up from school etc. Maybe someone was sitting in that queue after having a horrible day at work and knew they were returning home to an empty house, after recently getting divorced, or some other miserable scenario. I started romanticising the idea that my life wasn’t so bad, and that someone else in this queue was probably dealing with something far worse than me, and that I should use this time to just relax for a few minutes. It helped me gain some perspective, even if the scenarios were completely imaginary. I actually managed to forget that I have cancer for a few minutes, and was even claiming to have an enviable life because I didn’t have anything to get annoyed at these temporary lights for, other than the mild inconvenience. If only that was the measure of success in the world… I’d be a bona field Buddha by the now if it was.
Anyway, back to the story. Young, 18-year-old Dan, was totally in awe of this new construct that he had discovered. So what did he do? He got it tattooed across the right side of his chest… because why wouldn’t you do that? The word ‘Sonder’ awkwardly lay across my chest in a curly font for no real reason other than “I liked the definition.” It was my first tattoo, so part of me wanted to see what it felt like getting one too, and perhaps that made me more willing to randomly get a word tattooed on my chest. I was yearning for any excuse to get a tattoo now that I could legally do it.
I’ve since had it covered up. Not because I was ashamed of it, it just looked quite lost having a single word on my chest, and it was difficult to get things done around it without it looking strange. So, it is no longer there. I haven’t lived it down with my friends, though, and one of the common jokes was that it actually read ‘Sandra’ instead of ‘Sonder’. Despite never having dated anyone called Sandra, the joke was that I got an ex’s name tattooed on my chest before we broke up. I did play my own part in perpetuating this joke as I did find it very funny, and would regularly tell people that I had an ex-girlfriend’s name tattooed across my chest. Sometimes it is better to just indulge in the joke as opposed to becoming a victim of it. I also found the joke pretty funny, so that helps.
I’m not sure why I thought the best course of action after discovering a new word I liked was to immediately get it tattooed on my chest. Whether I thought it made me more interesting, or whether I liked the way that this obscure word might help explain something about me as a person, I’m not really sure. I can’t remember how I thought then, and I struggle to relate to a lot of my actions throughout this period of my life now. After all, I was a very different person then, one who drank to extremes and actively ignored many uncomfortable truths about myself. I probably still ignore some uncomfortable truths about myself, but some, like the fact that I have cancer and am statistically very likely to die in the next 5 years, I feel like I’m pretty good at facing… maybe I’m even too good at facing those uncomfortable truths now, and the more pertinent challenge is learning to ignore them and just enjoy myself.
The thing is, I have a lot of tattoos now, and I don’t really understand why I got many of them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. They capture something about myself, from a certain point in my life. I try not to regret any of them, even the one that I got covered up… Poor Sandra; the ex that never existed. As a concept, though, the term ‘sonder’ does still mean a lot to me, both because I decided to get it tattooed on me at some point, and because it did have such an impact on me upon finding out its definition.
The motivation for writing this post came at 4am yesterday morning, as I lay in bed struggling to sleep. For some reason, I decided to start making my way through some of the comments that have accumulated on the blog. I’ve had a backlog of comments which have built up over the past 2 months since I had the surgery. At first, they built up because I didn’t have the energy to respond to them. Then they continued to build up, and I continued to not answer them as it felt disrespectful to the older comments if I only answered the newer ones. Then, I had so many to respond to that I just shied away from the task. I haven’t been posting too often anyway, so I assumed that my readers weren’t taking my absence to heart. It must have been obvious that I was struggling, I thought, and that made me feel better that I had not been responding. I was struggling, so it was hardly a lie. I still am, but it’s getting easier.
Well, as I lay there unable to sleep, I decided that the time had come to start responding. I’m so glad I did. Although I had read all of the comments before, most of them whilst I was still in hospital, or only recently after I had got out, I’m not sure I had properly considered what many of them were saying. People can be so incredibly supportive – I felt really touched as I made my way through them and started responding. It got me thinking back on the concept of sonder and how profound it is.
We get so caught up in what is going on in our own lives that we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that we are truly alone in whatever struggle we are engaged in. That feeling of solitude can be detrimental to our well-being; sometimes more so than the struggle itself. I’m lucky that I have the blog, and this stops me from falling into such a trap so easily, as I have a small network of people who frequently reach out to me, with very similar experiences to the ones I talk about. It still surprises me just how similar some of the experiences that I read about are to mine, though. One person had recently commented on the blog stating that they had a total pancreatectomy (a full removal of the pancreas) only 8 weeks ago. I had the same procedure only 10 weeks ago. In the hospital (where I did suffer from feeling truly isolated and had nothing but time to dwell on my circumstances), I fell deeply into the feeling that I was alone – that what was happening to me was not being experienced by anyone else in the world. That feeling is crippling. It dragged me to the deepest pits of the human experience, resulting in an episode of delirium and some of the darkest thoughts I’ve ever had.
As I read that someone else had experienced the same surgery as me only 8 weeks ago, only a few weeks after my surgery date, I almost felt giddy. It feels sort of sadistic to admit that I was happy to read someone is going through what I am, especially knowing how difficult it has been. That shared experience goes a long way in normalising what is happening to me, though. Not ‘normalising’ in a negative way – not that you ever want to ‘normalise’ suffering from cancer, despite it feeling very normal when you see how busy the oncology wards are at hospitals – but normalising it in a way that makes it feel just that… Normal. At times, the most difficult part of going through everything that I have with pancreatic cancer is the feeling that I’m the only one going through it, due to the constant reminders from health professionals that “not many people your age get pancreatic cancer,” and the fact that “it is very rare for someone to successfully have a surgery like yours.” Even the latter, which is meant to be something positive, doesn’t feel positive when you’re still reeling from the surgery months later, struggling to manage the aggressive form of diabetes now bestowed upon you and still having to visit the wound clinic every day to change the dressings on your abdomen, because the wound still insists on bleeding to this day. Thinking that someone else is probably experiencing these same frustrations right now just makes me feel less abnormal. It is strangely comforting.
The problem with seeking out these types of shared experiences is that sometimes you find something which has the opposite effect. After spending about an hour responding to comments, I decided to look on Twitter, a platform I have been mostly ignoring since the operation. Due to me following a lot of cancer-centric pages and people on there, the algorithm has pinned me down as a real cancer-loving fellow. It is essentially all I see in my feed now. It brings a mix of personalities – the positive ones, the grieving ones, the defeatist ones, and a whole spectrum in between. Unfortunately, I stumbled across the below post at about 5am.
Considering I have scan results later today on Thursday, around 10 weeks after my surgery, this isn’t exactly what I wanted to read today, especially at 5am when I am feeling frustrated and tired. I’ve been comforting myself by saying that the scan can’t possibly pick anything up this quickly, and must just be a process thing to allow me to start chemotherapy, but this post made me think otherwise. I get that it is probably based on real experience, and I know that in most cases my cancer does come back in the form of metastasis to another part of the body, but what a bleak way of looking at things. Hoping to be cancer free should not be something worth criticising, I would hope. Let someone dream – hope isn’t always equivalent to denial. You can both hope to be cancer free and remain that way, yet know that it is unlikely to be the case. This is the world I find myself in – hoping I’ll stay cancer free, yet knowing it may, and probably will be, futile. Perhaps I’m just feeling a little defensive after an unwelcome dose of reality.
Still, the concept of sonder, where everyone has their own view of the world, and where everyone is at the centre of their own universe, can be incredibly comforting when you are going through hardship. No matter how bad things feel for you at any given moment, there is always someone going through something similar. Whether you seek those people out and communicate directly with them, through the internet or some kind of support group, or just allow the thought that they exist to comfort you, I hope it does comfort you when you are feeling low. If it doesn’t, I hope you have at least enjoyed reading about the concept of sonder, and next time you’re sitting in a traffic jam, it encourages you to think about all of those other cars and their occupants, and how they’re probably just as angry as you are about having to wait. I might even be in the car behind you…
The concept of sonder reminds me that these things that are bothering me are not unique to me. There is a whole network of others currently lying in bed, considering the fact that they have scan results for their own cancer later today. Some of them may have more on the line than me. I don’t really know what bad results would mean for me… another tumour? What would that actually mean? Different chemotherapy? No chemotherapy at all? Who knows. Someone is probably just being diagnosed for the first time this second, and I don’t envy them at all. That first diagnosis is soul-crushing. The words which trigger a plethora of existentialism, and start a new chapter in life; one of hospitals, sympathetic looks and a whole load of “I’m glad that isn’t happening to me”’s, even if most of them are probably only said in other people’s minds… Because if it isn’t happening to you, then you should be happy that it isn’t. Why wouldn’t you be? You should be glad it isn’t happening to you… I wish it wasn’t happening to me.
But I’m equally glad that it is happening to me and not to either of my parents, my siblings, my wife or any of my friends. Anyway, it is happening to them in a different way, and even that is hard for me to process. Let’s just hope that the scan is clear, so I can get on to the mop-up chemotherapy, and then push through to being ‘cancer free’, for a while, at least.
9 thoughts on “Sonder”
Interesting, I enjoyed the post. In my mother tongue, Afrikaans, “sonder” means “without.” 😉
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That’s so interesting! It’s almost the total opposite of the meaning I’ve defined here 😄
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You see! LOL. Yep. Words can be “treacherous” in different languages!
As a fellow pancreatic cancer insomniac I enjoy your blogs immensely after I’ve wordled, quordled, nerdled and squareworded through the night. Waiting for results seems the hardest part of treatment.. I have stage 4 P.C from 2019 and am on 30th round of palliative treatment but if you want a smile I did a skydive in August 2022 (.https://www.justgiving.com/team/NUH-Plummeting-Pathologists) & raised £3000.
Hello. I found your blog while reading up as much as I can about pancreatic cancer after my husband was diagnosed in August 2022 with Stage 4 adenocarcinoma on the tail of his pancreas. Your blog is incredibly important for people like my husband and me as there is so little detailed information out there from people going through this.
Thanks for writing this blog.
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In German, ‘sonder’ is mostly a sort of prefix meaning ‘special’: Sonderschule = special school, Sonderangebot = special offer, and so on.
Thanks for the philosophical approach to red lights. It helps!
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Reading your explaination of sonder and your journey makes me more aware how fragile the strands of connectivity are for people with cancer. I celebrated my 1st year following my whipple op and 6 months of chemo which has been the most frustrating and perplexing at times. It made me aware of my own level of resilience. I can appreciate the healing process is taking time but everyday your body recovers a little bit more whilst coming to terms with the changes following surgery.
Take care Dee
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Hey Dee. Thank you so much for your lovely comment. ‘Strands of connectivity’ is a really beautiful phase too. It is great to hear you are a whole year out from the whipple – you must be an incredibly strong individual. It is so difficult coming back from these things. I’m finally getting somewhere significant in my own journey and feeling at a pretty good strength level again, in spite of the chemotherapy. All the best, Dan
I’m also really intrigued by this concept of sonder. It’s funny because a friend of mine just sent me a belated birthday gift of coffee from a company called “Sip & Sonder”, so I was literally just thinking about this idea of people passing around us, both connected and not, earlier this week. Small world!
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