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Sonder: A Glimpse into the Anthropological Imagination

By:  Nichelle Taylor

     The room is chilled, but the goosebumps trailing across my skin do not come from the cold air blowing down on me from the vent on the ceiling. No, the coldest part of this room is the bitter silence among twenty strangers sitting cramped together, hating one another without reason.

     I sit in an uncomfortable metal chair, wondering if it makes any difference to slouch or sit up tall; we all have the same fate anyway. I pick at the rough skin around my nails as I wait, wishing there were a way to remove myself from it all.

     There were once days that I might have brought a book to keep me occupied in a waiting room just like this one. Though, in those days, it might have been for something as mundane as a dental cleaning. Now that our world has changed, becoming a stranger to the history books left dusty in abandoned libraries, I am forced into a waiting room where I will have to choose a side.

     Instead of a book, I decide to study people; they are more interesting anyway. Besides, they all have their own stories to tell, and if I open my mind wide enough for every person, their lives become a series of tales, each deserving of their own page. Within this room, there are romances, tragedies, comedies, maybe even a ghost story or two. Even after studying them, I will still never know the whole story of a single individual, and the thought makes me smile.

     The fair-skinned woman to the right of me stares into the abyss. Her jeans and tight turtleneck sweater are nostalgic for the 1990’s, and she taps her fingers on her knee in a fast, unmeasured rhythm. She has a tan line on her left ring finger, and I wonder how long she has been divorced.

     The sunburned man on my left wears a red hat our entire country could recognize immediately, a tee shirt that says something cheesy about being a proud redneck, and a pair of worn-out sandals over tight socks. He holds a cane in his hand and taps it on the ground over and over, eventually matching the beat of the woman’s tapping. Their movements are in sync, but I wonder if that is their only similarity.

     There are more people around us, the room cluttered and stuffed with too many bodies for comfort. Each person is different. A handful of blondes and brunettes sit bored in their chairs, scrolling through their phones as they wait for their turns. I am not sure they know how important this is, how defining this moment is. They are just ready for it to be over. We all are.

     A couple of men sit with their gazes lowered, careful not to look at anyone too closely. They have learned the rules, and they cannot afford to break them. The man closest to me keeps his head down, pulling his long sleeves over his sepia skin, and I cannot help but notice the tension in his shoulder blades as we sit in this hellish silence.

     A disembodied squeal startles the empty feeling of a full room, and I turn to face its owner. A young mother sits with three children, her copper cheeks and dark eyes redden as she shushes the tiny baby in her arms, occasionally saying to her older boys who squirm in their seats, “Cállate!” She looks apologetically at everyone, but I do not turn away like the others do. Instead, our eyes meet, and her hollowed gaze bores into me. She is frightened; we all should be.

     Everyone in this room is different, except the need for silence. As if the silence will keep us blind to the agony ahead, the apocalypse I have predicted for months. Silence is what got us here; some have become comfortable in their compliance, and others in their resolved stubbornness. In ways, I envy both.

     But me? I know there is more to this story than the two sides we are given.

     The door opens with a loud click that makes everyone sit up straighter. A woman stumbles out the door, sobbing, clutching her stomach as if she might retch. Her mascara has smeared, and the guard assists her out of the waiting room by roughly pulling on her arm. The room’s population watches her intently, and as soon as she is gone, they settle back into the silence, into their own heads, not worrying about that girl. Only worrying that they will look the same way when they soon make their exit, too.

     When the guard comes back, he straightens his uniform and stands stoically beside the door. A deep voice calls out my name, and I stand, peering around the room at the strangers who try to ignore my presence. A few of them sneak a peek at me and quickly look away, but others remain with their heads down. I wonder if they are praying this might be a dream and they may wake up in their cozy beds instead of in this room. We can always dream, right?

     I look back at the young mother, and she nods me a solemn farewell. I suck in a deep breath and turn back towards the door. Once I can no longer see the strangers in the room, I feel their stares on me. But that’s normal now. No eye contact. We only look at each other when we know the other person cannot see us.

     If we did, we might let them know we recognize them as human.

     I step through the doorway, and the guard follows me in, shutting the door behind me. The sound of it locking echoes around the room, forcing a shiver down my spine.

     The room is small and hazy, almost like someone has been smoking cigarettes nonstop inside it. A single lamp stands in the corner of the room, producing a yellow halo around the man behind the Mahogany desk. His skin is pale, his eyes shrunken in, hidden by the deep wrinkles across his face. He is bald, and he wears a frown upon his lips. “Come along, now. You can sit down, miss,” he says hastily, as if just my existence is a waste anyway. I slowly approach the armchair in front of me and sit down cautiously.

     His nasally voice booms around me as I settle into the seat, “As you know, we have many changes coming to our world. As humans, we can never agree on anything. We all want to change the world, but we have different ways of trying to. Now, it is time to decide where you stand.”

     In this moment, I almost wish I were back in the silence instead of faced with this question. I knew it was coming; we all did.

     Our world has commonly been binary, but now we are forced to conform to one side or another. Political parties, controversies, opinions of any kind must be met by unwavering answers of “Yes,” or “No.” Our world is black and white, and it leaves no room for those of us who think gray, or at least demand that there be a gray option, who think an opinion is more than agreeing with someone drunk with power.

     We all want to change the world, but some of us do not believe in dominating it.

     “These groups have specific rules, so you must choose wisely,” says the old man, running a hand over his sparce scalp.

     We know the rules. After choosing one group over another, we will never be able to see the other side. It means that any family, friends, or strangers in the other group become enemies, and we must hate them because their way is not ours. It means we can never learn the unique ways of another person. We will never learn another way of life.

     “Do you understand, miss?” His exhausted voice leaves me empty.

     I understand. This solution forces us to hate, lets it build up in our blood so we can pass it down to the following generations. It convinces us that we are invincible and godly, deities over everyone else. We choose out of fear, out of our lack of connection to each other.

     They count on that.

     The man stares at me expectantly, “Now is the time to decide, miss. Which group do you choose to join?”

     It is not a choice; it is a death sentence to everything I value. It diminishes any chance of living in a kinder world again. I smile at him, crossing my legs in front of me.

     “I choose sonder.”

     “Sonder?” his untamed eyebrows squish together, “That is not an option—”

     “Do you know what sonder is?” I interrupt, feeling his darkened gaze sink into my skin, and I fear I will never be able to remove that darkness as it lingers inside me.

     He sighs, “No, I guess I do not.”

     “Sonder is the realization that everyone has a story, a life that is just as vivid and complicated as your own.” The man stares at me blankly, so I continue, “In your life, you are the main character, but in my life, you are just an extra. We all play different roles. Sometimes, we are the best friend, the love interest, the random stranger named Woman #2, the ones we never get to meet, but we all live our lives as the main character. We all live a life that is personal and connected to each other’s without ever noticing.”

     “What does that have to do with anything?” he asks.

     My mouth feels dry, but I press on, “There are other ways of understanding the world. We live in a place of over seven billion realities, and we cannot create an identity that forces them to conform into one or even two. We cannot pick a reality that forces us to view the others as inhuman.”

     He cuts me off, “Miss, I still need you to pick a side.”

     I continue, “We were not meant to be enemies. We are all a community.”

     “Miss, please—”

     I shake my head, raising my voice above his, “I choose kindness. I choose understanding. I choose love. Neither of your sides showcase those qualities, so I choose a way to reflect on how my life impacts another.”

     “Now, wait a minute!” he yells, but I stand from my chair and turn towards the door. The guard reaches for me, but I unlock the door myself and throw it wide open, letting the uncomfortable light from the waiting room spill into the dark office. Both the guard and man at the desk gape at me as they witness my open defiance.

     Though my hands shake, I walk confidently into the waiting room and clear my throat. Everyone slowly looks up at me, their eyes widened, unable to understand why I am not leaving crying like the others did.

     I say loudly, my voice a stranger in the empty silence of a cramped room, “You are all here to choose sides, to hate each other, to judge each other. But I am here to remember the days when being a community did not mean we bonded over hating the same people. There were days that we grew closer because of our differences, helped each other out across the globe. It should not matter where you are from or how your thinking may differ, we are all just human.

     “We are divided. We are told this is the way to fix it, but they are wrong. Connection is the ultimate fight; communicating and valuing each other as wonderful, crazy, and purposeful human beings is the way to win this battle. Will you let yourself be human?” My heartbeat is in my ears, “Will you let each other be human?”

     The people in the waiting room stare at me, shocked and unmoving. Their silence is my answer. I shake my head and make my way to the exit on my own accord.

     I hear the man from the office run after me, his dress shoes clicking across the tile floor. “Wait! You have to choose a side!”

     When I turn back to look at him, unsure how he will meet my final refusal, I notice that everyone is standing, creating a human wall between me and the man who wants me to choose someone to hate. Their eyes glisten, and they begin to follow me. I spot the young mother in the crowd, and she smiles as if I were an old friend. I hope one day I will be.

     I grin as I listen to the echo of their footsteps trailing after mine, and we walk out of the building, together.

     I was not born to lead, but I must believe I was meant to understand others. If that is all I am able to do in this world, I will do the best that I can with whatever I’ve got.