"The opposite of anger is not calmness, it's empathy" - Dr. Mehmet Oz
As people, we often operate on our own fuel of desires and needs. We autonomously stroll the streets of our cities and aisles of our grocery stores going from point A to point B. For most people, they do this every day without seeing, truly seeing, the incredible sight that befalls them every time they exit their door. For others, they do see this, and they live by this sight. Live by the constant appreciation and awareness of this mural. A mural of love, pain, happiness, tragedy, life and death. That sight is humans. People! Just people living their life, doing their own activities, going about their business, talking, walking, laughing, and living.
The word sonder is a French derived word that describes this exact feeling of looking around you and realizing that every single individual you see is living a life as incredibly complex and vivid as your own. All of your experiences and thoughts are as beautifully deep as every single person you have ever seen. And while reading that may sound very simple (or existentially terrifying), sondering is the deepest form of understanding of what this means, and the implications of such.
In November my eyes were opened to just a sliver of this experience, that being the human experience. Over one weekend my perspective on human consciousness changed out of the ripples of a wave called Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI). The University of South Florida puts on this program every fall semester, and uniquely enough it is a program exclusively for incoming freshman of that fall.
It was first suggested to me at orientation, when a couple of orientation leaders mentioned a weekend retreat put on by the school that teaches participants about leadership and something "deeper." So off impulse I decided to fill in an application a couple weeks into my first semester. Surprisingly enough I actually got in. However, after reading all of the material regarding ELI, and even after attending the two hour ELI orientation that prepared participants. . . I. . . still had no idea what ELI was. I obviously knew the description, but other than that I had zero idea what any of it entailed. I didn't know what the retreat was going to be like, what we were even going to learn about and what fazed me most was why everyone kept saying
"ELI changed my life"
Up until literally the moment we arrived, I had no idea how one weekend, how one program that teaches you about leadership, could possibly change my life. My life was only ever changed after long ordeals of tragedy or major life changing decisions. A weekend could never completely overhaul my train of thought, could it?
It took about 3 hours for me to feel a difference. About three hours into this wonderfully weird experience I actually started crying.
Unfortunately, I cannot disclose too much of ELI, as the magic of it is in the mystery, but I think I'm safe in discussing a tiny part of this one activity called the Identity Wall. This one moment changed what I thought I knew about empathy. Essentially, a series of statements were read out, and individuals had to walk to a specific identity on the wall that they feel most matched that statement regarding them self. For example, if the statement "Go to the identity that you feel has most affected your leadership" was read, I would go to "Family Structure" since the death of my parents have significantly affected how I carry myself and empathize with others.
Then they allowed us to explain the why of why we picked a certain identity. It got deep. So many participants were incredibly vulnerable about themselves, their lives, their experiences and internal emotions. So many allowed themselves to share their own incredibly deep and complex stories regarding their religion, family, mental health, self perception, nationality and so much more.
This is where the sonder appeared. At this point, through tears of this beautiful moment only to be ever shared truly by us group of complete strangers, I fully began to realize the incredible depth of humans and the human experience. Just as I have been through incredible joy, pain, every day life, from eating breakfast with my mother to going to Nascar races with my father, joining my fraternity, transitioning from private school to public, my own mental health, every single one of these beautifully different people have been through as many different experience as mine. All of them have been shaped by an infinite amount of decisions both big and small and variables that the universe placed on them.
One story in particular, however, was shared that absolutely shredded my heart but at the same time made me feel a sense of somber sameness. An individual (whose permission I have to share this) began talking about what they had went through regarding the loss of both of their parents. Every word that spilled out I identified with. Never would I have ever expected someone my age right there would understand what I could never put into words.
Following this activity the tone was definitely changed, but for the better. The incredible raw vulnerability that was experienced in that room allowed every single one of us former strangers become instantly closer.
On a lighter note regarding sonder, I asked as many people as I could how they heard about ELI, and their responses were so surprisingly varied. Some said they heard from their parents, from their orientation leader, from their big in their sorority, from a professor or mentor, or even from a complete stranger actually. All of the weight of their ambitions, relationships and thoughts brought us 60 there. When one really sits down and thinks about the mind blowing similarity in dissimilarity each of us shares, we can empathize easier.
That person you got upset at for writing your name wrong on your Starbucks cup? You both woke up today, walked somewhere, did something and talked to someone, and just so happened to meet each other as complete strangers in a coffee shop.
The person you see walking their dog while you're waiting for your school bus to pick you up? They have kids of their own, who may even go to your same school but you may never know or maybe you will. Later that day they're going to go to the grocery store and pick up some ingredients for their kids' favorite dinner. Macaroni and cheese. You also love macaroni and cheese.
So just think for a moment and really look at the mural that is human life. See deeply into every strangers face and think about their own experiences, anxieties, stakes and ideas in life. Realize that you both sharing the same space is similarity enough. Empathize with them on a deeper level. Empathy doesn't have to be for sad moments, it can just be for living and appreciating. After all, you clicked on this one article on this one website in an infinite internet. As you sit or stand reading on a screen on this wonderful beautiful blue dot in a vast universe.