On Sonder and Choice

This is an edited conversation that occurred on ‘Top 10 Buffy or Angel Episodes (that remind us everything is going to be okay.) I appreciated the commenter’s honesty and thought the points deserved to be highlighted. I’ve tried to edit us both down a bit for readability.

Regarding your discussion of “sonder,” what is it about the concept that is relieving? I am a huge believer in empathy, yet I struggle with the idea that everyone around me is living a life just as complex as my own. Perhaps it’s that I’ve grown up with people who don’t communicate their problems well and thus I struggle to see their problems because, not only did they never explain their problems, but they blamed their problems on me…It’s a wonderful concept, sonder, but I find little relief in the idea that other people are living equally complex or challenging lives as my own. I realize this sounds conceited and bitter in the context of trying to remember that “everything is going to be alright,” but there are some serious barriers to that concept which need addressing. Perhaps we are not main characters in a long and convoluted plot with ancillary figures around us but the world also isn’t fair or equal to everyone so does that mean that those of us who are unlucky shouldn’t suggest that our problems deserve more attention than the problems of lucky people?

I can only answer with my own anecdotal experience. I am not a philosopher nor a psychologist. Just a guy with too much time on his hands who runs a Youtube channel. For me, these concepts mostly come back to the value of managing my own perspective. For reference, I am a high anxiety neurotic. The wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep because something embarrassing I said when I was 11 just popped back into my head and I’m reliving it all over again at 3am type. Insecurity. A lot of worry. To the point where it can become paralyzing. The idea then of Sonder allows me to neuter the power of those fears. To remove myself from that anxious bubble and reach a state of just being present, as I come to understand my fears are just a tiny blip in the white noise of humanity. It’s helpful LESS because 'well a lot of people have it worse’ and more from the idea that suffering is an intrinsic aspect of being human. It’s purely a tool.

Now you can’t LIVE in that space. Selfishness is probably a biological form of self-preservation, and a useful one. I come back to my life, my desires, my wants and continue to move forward. But I get to do so on my own terms. It may not be a particularly useful idea for you in place in life you are at right now. But what I’m trying to get at in this video and ultimately on the channel itself is to live 100 percent through CHOICE, stripping away my automatic ways of being that don’t serve my aspirations for a life of passion and expression. My resentments. My hatreds. My fears. They may be valid and justified but who would CHOOSE to live like that? Boiling in what is undone? Life is what it is, mostly out of our control, but we do have the freedom to experience it how we choose.

As an example when I was a teenager my Dad told me to “have a nice life” and stopped speaking to me for several years. When we eventually came back into each others orbit, he expressed zero remorse or regret. I could have stayed angry at him. It would have been completely and utterly justified. But that would have poisoned my OWN well. And I don’t choose to live like that. I’ve had to learn that you can’t suppress an emotion, be it fear anxiety or whatever. But emotions are generated by my own perspective and THAT I do have control over. If something is making me sick I have the ability to turn the prism of my own perspective a few times and find freedom again. It is not as easy as it sounds and it has taken a lot of practice. But it DOES work. And it freed me up to forgive my Dad and find new ground with him.

I am shaken today due to some things going on so this is relevant. There’s a quote from the movie 'Her’ that I always come back to. Amy Adams is sitting on the couch with Joaquin Phoenix and he’s feeling guilty over this bizarre relationship he’s formed with an AI. And she says: “You know what, I can overthink everything and find a million ways to doubt myself…and I’ve just come to realize that, we’re only here briefly. And while I’m here I wanna allow myself joy. So fuck it.”

That was really insightful. Thank you. Your anecdotes really do help. Your example of waking up in the middle of the night with intense fears of something you did as an 11 year old (I get a similar form of this sometimes too) is very on point. I just would never want someone to say, as my parents did to me, “well everyone’s got problems so your problems don’t matter.” That scares me a lot, not because I fear it personally but because it opens up the doors for excusing all sorts of bad actions. Ultimately, though, you’re right. Choice should dictate how we see the world and how we respond to bad situations. We should not act in “bad faith” as you’ve brought up on the episode guide a few times, and which I know you’ll bring up again ;-) Oh and for the record, you’re not just some guy on YouTube with too much time on his hands. You’re a converser who provides a space and helps us all confront our inner demons by talking about a show, a piece of art, with which we all find deep emotional meaning. Not many people are willing to do that kind of thing. Thank you again for taking the time to make these videos and to speak with me. I really appreciate it.

I’m honored. And 'everyone has problems’ is a nonsensical way of handling suffering. It’s bleach for the human experience. My sister had an accident once and sliced off her index finger. I remember a LOT of people telling her, “Well at least you didn’t lose the hand.” Which made me angry because it was like telling her she didn’t deserve to feel bad because it could’ve been worse. But you know what STILL sucks? LOSING a damn FINGER.

The most succinct explanation of suffering I’ve ever heard was from Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search For Meaning: “To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.” It must always be dealt with on its own terms which means comparisons between individuals are essentially irrelevant. The concept of Sonder shouldn’t be employed through GUILT. It has no power then. It’s something that, should you decide to use it, you do through choice.

Source: https://thepassionofthenerd.tumblr.com/post/152984768549/on-sonder-and-choice