Opposite of Sonder: Potatoes

I like words. In my search for obscure and pointed words, I’ve come across the word “sonder.” Sonder is a noun: the realization that everybody else, every stranger, leads an interior life as vivid and intricate and idiosyncratic and sui generis as your own. 

Sit and think about that. Now try to orient your reaction according to the two points on the sonder spectrum that I’m about to lay out for you.

Some describe sonder as an overwhelming sadness, sadness in the realization that you are just one of seven billion, that all your tiny miseries and everything you’ve ever worried about are really small potatoes. Small potatoes that you’ve been mistaken in seeing as the biggest potatoes around, when really everybody else’s potatoes are just as big. 

Others see sonder as an emotional state of unifying happiness. We’re all experiencing life just as fully at both extremes–positive and negative–and in the happiness and misery of being, we are united. There are no small potatoes or big potatoes, there are only potatoes, and we’ve all got ’em. 

I’ve found myself in both camps, and it really just depends on my mood and milieu. When sailing is smooth on the H.M.S. Jamesy, I fall in the latter camp. My own life seems good, so I have the energy to worry about other lives. I have the energy to appreciate other lives more fully–to try to slip my feet into the proverbial shoes of another and shuffle along for a mile or so. But this is only when my sailing is smooth, remember. When the reign of positivity rules over my tracts of emotional/psychological land and I’m willing to think of things that exist past the tip of my own nose.

When the H.M.S. Jamesy is getting thrown fore and aft, port to starboard by massive and insurmountable swells, I fall in the former camp. I become very Dostoevskian. My struggle is greater than everybody else’s nobody else appreciates it, and struggle is the most puissant thing that a human can endure. Pain and suffering, insult and humiliation–these are the factors that unite great minds, i.e. aforementioned Dostoevsky & co. This struggle is the password to join the club. We long for struggle, and in this struggle we set ourselves apart. We revel in it, or at least I (and Fyodor) do, and when we say we wish to escape it we’re doing no more than verbalizing a velleity. Oh, how great it would be to be happy! But how great to never be!

With this philosophy comes the death of sonder, and to sit and think about it, to really think–to read the likes of Dostoevsky–it becomes clear that while all humans do lead interior lives, some are admittedly more tempestuous than others. In simpler terms, one man’s potatoes can be larger than another’s. 

This is an unpopular view. Understanding, compassion, sympathy, empathy, unity–these are the things to strive for, right? We are supposed to do the right thing. We are supposed to give a shit, to turn the other cheek when our cheek has been slapped, all for the benefit of another. I, lately, have found myself skeptical. I, lately, have categorized the fables and lessons of youth as apocryphal. 

Why invest in the potatoes of another–which admittedly might be small potatoes–when I’ve got my own potatoes to understand and reckon with? Who’s to say that I should shirk my own god damned potatoes? (I know I’ve probably run with the ‘potatoes’ thing for too long now, but it’s honestly just incredibly fun to type ‘small potatoes.’) Sure, sonder is a nice sentiment–and probably holds some water when you get very close to people, once they let you in on their intricacies, but if everybody’s life is so damn unique, why shouldn’t I just try to map out my own uniqueness first? Why should I help another? How can I ever truly know what another feels? I can’t. They can tell me, but I can only contextualize their potatoes v my potatoes, and because my potatoes are mine, they will always seem bigger.

Even when somebody else’s potatoes are irrefutably larger than mine, e.g. children in Africa have no clean water to drink while I sit here with a nice, chilled Klean-Kanteen (hey, look at me! I’m sustainable!) with beads of condensation racing down its crisp refreshing side, my potatoes are always, always, always magnified from my perspective–without fail. “Donate $2 a month to help give (insert name of child here) access to clean water.” Again, that’s an immense potato, like as far as potatoes go that’s about as big as they get. But when that gargantuan potato is placed among one’s own potatoes and juxtaposed against the thought: “I need to scrounge up $1,700 in rent this month to live in my shoebox in Manhattan and not get evicted, but I’d also like to eat more than rice and beans,” the large potato of another becomes minuscule in comparison to one’s own personal potato. A potato of privilege, nonetheless–an apartment in Manhattan and good food.

And even when somebody has the means to be altruistic, it’s usually to achieve the end of addressing his/her own potatoes. Do they really care about some child’s clean water? Or do they want to be able to say, at their ritzy cocktail party where they’re dressed in Ralph Lauren Purple Label (I know R.L. Purple Label probably isn’t all that hip, but if I was rich that’s what I’d wear) head to toe, “I donate money to children in Africa so they can drink clean water.” They want that status. They want that card to play, that brag to drop. They want “philanthropist” on their tombstone. It’s all for personal potatoes of privilege, right alongside “I need to remember to buy my wife Louboutins before the next party, so we can display our wealth and so she can make that bitch Denise jealous and I can assert my financial superiority over her husband, Rick. Humiliating Rick & Denise = bigger potatoes than African child’s potable water. It can get confusing, but when shit hits the fan, the potatoes always boil (hehe) down to mine > yours. 

Through the logic of potatoes, I’ve personally decided that sonder is a farce. We may have the underlying knowledge that our neighbors have their own lives and their own shit to deal with, but our understanding of their shit will never be great enough for us to really care. And why should we pretend to? The only reason we try to imagine we do, is so that we can say we care–so we can seem like better people than we actually are. At the end of the day, the potato scale is always tipped in our own favor. 

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Terry Lewis says:

    I don’t agree with you 100%. I agree that we are innately selfish, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of caring for others. Lots of people do things for others and never tell anyone else. I know I care, but I have to agree my potatoes are far bigger. And I would even admit that we do good things in order to feel good about ourselves, whether we tell others or not. But I still hold that for many people (maybe most? I don’t know) there is still genuine concern for others, even if it isn’t the only or even the major reason.
    Becoming aware of others problems actually does help us to get our own potatoes in perspective, even if they still are the largest in the room. Jung believed we all needed a myth to live by, something larger than ourselves that we could commit to, otherwise we’d struggle to find a reason to live (or something like that). Still a selfish motivation I admit, and as I said I do believe we are innately selfish, so I have no problem accepting that our potatoes are still the biggest. It’s just that I don’t have quite so harsh a view of our efforts to help others.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Fatimah Badawy says:

      I think it was very beautifully meticulous of you to describe our care for others as also beneficial for us in one way or another. It’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fatimah Badawy says:

    This piece is wonderfully reminiscent of the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. As I began reading I found myself nodding at the points you discussed, like yes, one can experience sonder positively, and yes it can become an inundation of melancholy! Then I read your ideas on the juxtaposition of a profound mind wanting happiness and repelling its notion at the same time! Yes, it made so much sense to me! I hadn’t agreed with sonder being a word that didn’t apply to all of us all at once, but it feels as though stepping out of the definition of everyone’s own sui generis story is also escaping the whopping fall of the mountain that carries all our troubles. That sounds relieving, almost stupid if abandoned. But that also made me think of how much of that I wanted. I already decry the existence of any altruism in us. Even if we desire nothing tangible in return, our own “selfless” self-satisfaction cancels out any altruistic motives, but it doesn’t bother me that that selfishness exists. As long as the deed is done, and done well, then let the sonder of everyone else exist within them. Everyone matters and we matter just as much at the same time — it’s exhausting to think about, and it’s boring not to. Our universe exists in paradoxes always keeping the alert minds on their feet, ready to ponder the next puzzle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. James Freitas says:

      Glad you understand what I’m getting at! Thanks for reading and commenting. And I agree with you 100% on altruism.

      “It’s exhausting to think about, and it’s boring not to”–spot on.

      Liked by 1 person

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