According to the breathtakingly beautiful work of Youtube channel Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, the word "sonder" means "the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own."
At first glance, this noun seems a simple enough concept to understand. Obviously, other people have lives of their own outside of the bounds of my existence, of that, I can be sure. Every ounce of my oodles of common sense (probably slightly less than "oodles," I suppose, but you get the idea) point to that conclusion! People don't cease to move when my eyes aren't on them. They don't follow a scripted dialogue in our interactions. They don't run out of improvisational techniques and stumble around in the background like failed extras in a bad movie. They go about their day as normal, living the lives they normally lead as I set out to do the same with mine. Simple, right?
But the word "sonder" does not mean "the realization that other people exist."
Imagine you are the character in a book. This is your life, so naturally, you are the undisputed protagonist. You defend against the evils, you emerge victorious in the struggles you needed to win, and you have plenty to learn from the trials you lose. You acknowledge the people living around you, but it is acknowledgment in the way high school English class students acknowledge the side characters of your book with a brief blurb of flavor text about how they relate to or assist the main character in their life's quest. You are your life's most important participant. Arguably in your eyes the only important participant. Because this is your story, everyone else who exists within it is only important in relation to you, right?
Now pause and imagine your life as one book on an endless bookshelf.
Your story is one of many. Of so, so many. This does not take away from the importance of your story - on the contrary, the uniqueness of your story makes it a priceless one of lifetimes this world has accumulated. But in looking at the endless bookshelf stretching on into forever, you can be reminded that the importance of other people's stories is just as vast and unknowable.
We all tend to see ourselves as the hero. The one who saves the day time and again. The one who always understands what's going on. The one on whom life itself seems dependent. The one who vanquishes the villain and emerges victorious every time. The problem with this is that we must, as human beings, be able to recognize that other people's stories are very real and very different from ours. We may be someone else's rival. Someone else's love. Someone else's stranger. Someone else's villain. We may be to someone the epitome of evil and to another the essence of good. We can never know what it is we mean to other people, how our side character storyline plays out in the grand scheme of their plotline.
Whatever it is that we are, the very first step we can take towards the goal of, in the wise words of a friend, "leaving everyone's lives better off than where you found them," is understanding that people have stories. We cannot control how we appear in them. We can simply watch and wait and listen and learn about how to approach those around us with an open mind to the story they have to share.
Sonder is the concept of remembering other people exist and are crucially important to the foundation of the world. We may not know the exact details of their stories, but we can serve them as best we can while living out our own. Every single story is priceless.