Art class, intersections, and definitions
By Amanda Knox
Colin and I were driving home on a dark, rainy evening. The streets were hissing slick with wet. The lights from cars and traffic lights were bitingly bright. It had been a long day for the both of us, and I still had writing to do after another full day at the bookstore. Then we had each other on top of it all, distinct, separate beings, in it together.
We found ourselves stopped at the five-way intersection of 16th and Roxbury in White Center. It was rush hour, and lines of cars were crowding towards the crossroads from all directions. Pedestrians huddled in puffy coats beneath the street lamps. They looked cold.
“I find it interesting,” Colin mused, “That everyone stuck at this intersection right now is looking at it differently.”
It was an idea we had vocalized to each other before: the problem of how subjective truth interacts with objective truth, how each inevitably affects the other, the stakes that are raised as a consequence, and how to both value and distinguish between truth and honesty. It was one of those ideas that feels tangible, because it is deeply felt, yet at the same time, is abstract enough that one must bend oneself backwards in order to explain it, and remains therefore, elusive. At the bookstore the next day, I continued to ponder, and then, was there a word for it?
“Dean,” I pleaded. “Help me out. You know how, say you’re in an art class and everyone is painting the same bowl of fruit. Everyone’s painting comes out different, partially because there’s a disparity in individual talent and technique, but what I’m looking for is a word that has to do with the fact that the differences in the paintings are differences in perspective. Like every painting is a true representation of the bowl of fruit, even if all the paintings are different. Is there a word for that?”
Dean paused and pursed his lips. “Sonder is the word you’re looking for, I think. Here.”
And he wrote down on a piece of scrap paper: Sonder - n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.
I felt relief, and even joy, from a sense of legitimacy, as if I couldn’t prove the existence of something the way I envisioned it unless I could name it. Sonder. If anyone’s life is as vivid and complex as my own, then it follows that anyone’s perspective of reality would be different and yet as legitimate as my own. Sonder! Was there a verb form? I’m sondering?
The Oxford English Dictionary hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. But Google did, and brought me to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a compendium of invented words, each aiming to fill a hole in the English language by giving a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for, by John Koenig. A word nerd, I was gleeful, and immediately started browsing. To share just two:
Lachesism - n. the desire to be struck by disaster—to survive a plane crash, to lose everything in a fire, to plunge over a waterfall—which would put a kink in the smooth arc of your life, and forge it into something hardened and flexible and sharp, not just a stiff prefabricated beam that barely covers the gap between one end of your life and the other.
Onism - n. awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience.
These were deeply-felt and gnawing inklings, abstract and (previously) nameless, the kinds of emotions and experiences that move a person, that draw people together or pull us apart. I could imagine countless people afflicted with the knot in their stomach or the tightness of breath that comes from experiencing these emotions, but unable to pinpoint it, even for themselves. They would be without the understanding of their emotion’s relatability, which alone can elevate an affliction to a beautiful wonder.
Anything that seeks to acknowledge the depths of our hearts is worth sharing. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is one of those.