We’re all our own protagonist


Once more, I find much of my inspiration for inner reflection and outward commentary comes from Reddit. I came across a site called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows via them, which is a “compendium of the aches, demons, vibes, joys and urges that roam the wilderness of the psychological interior.” There is a particular word defined in there known as “sonder.” The definition, which has inspired this post, is as follows:

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

/u/Iglidante expanded upon this idea with the following notion:

“Every person on earth is living as if they are the protagonist of their own story.

Every person who has ever hurt you, every person who has ever loved you, and every stranger you pass on the street. The guy who cut you off in traffic. The girl that gave you a dirty look when you reached for the coffee on the shelf she was blocking. Everyone.

And to many of them, you are a fleeting character – a cardboard cutout, even – that barely registers in their story. Others know you better, but you are still a subordinate – a little less real.”

When first reading this, I was blown away because it’s simplistically obvious and apparent, but when one digs deep into this, it’s quite a powerful notion.

If you take this too far, you’ll get into solipsism, which for the purposes of this blog; I’m not interested into exploring at present.

That said, it’s quite the thought to realize not only can you never conceptualize what it is like to see through the eyes of another, but that you can also never see yourself through different eyes. That inability creates this concept of “sonder” because since we can’t, then we create this bias where we are defining ourselves as the protagonist in every exchange and interaction; thereby, everyone else is the “villain.”

Consider also this passage from David Foster Wallace’s book This is Water:

“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.

We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self- centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea.

But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term…”

Again, this is just another variation on the concept, which I find worth contemplation.

Yet, what’s interesting and a silver lining in this concept is that despite that inability to gain a different perspective, we manage to build relationships, connections and even this interesting thing called love. How does that happen? How do we slow down this perpetually accelerating story in our head, where we are the leading figure, enough to recognize this other figure or multiple figures that are worth more than a periphery glance? How does selflessness and altruistic happenings come to pass?

Empathy must play a role. In fact, I believe that is the key silver lining that is essentially like the director yelling, “Cut!” during a scene. The blurred images at the peripheral slow down, in a manner of speaking, and we see what is truly around us. We realize that, while yes, everyone else is living unique lives that also have a continually unraveling narrative, perhaps there is something we can learn from their story.

From that small seed of curiosity, empathy and intrigue, takes root friendships, familial bonds, love and care for complete strangers.

Of course, if one wanted to be cynical, they could take this contradicting of, as Wallace referred to it, “natural default setting” with respect to altruism to merely be another extension of our need to be the “protagonist” or in this case, the “hero.”

But I often try to lead my life optimistically with the thought process that, “Others around me are going through things I know nothing about – they could be happy, fulfilling things or momentarily tragic events; therefore, I should treat everyone well and not take anything too personally.” In other words, to the latter point, if someone lashes out at me at work or school, I consider that they may be having a bad day and not take it too personally. Granted, having a bad day does not excuse taking it out on someone else, but it helps to understand it.

Moreover, this applies to those embarrassing moments that often occurs to us with an inclination to be clumsy. For instance, you trip when walking or stutter to the cashier or whatever the case may be, a natural instinct may be to think, “Oh, how embarrassing, they must think I’m such a weirdo.” When in reality, not only are they likely consumed by their own raveling stories to have taken much note, but given the unbelievable amount of daily interactions that are possible, especially depending on geographical location, there is a great likelihood that you will never see that person again.

So, the moral of my story here is that you ought not take yourself too seriously and love others. Not exactly new advice, but it’s always worth reiterating.

5 thoughts

  1. Always worth reiterating indeed. After listening to “This is water” yesterday (it had been a while since I had!), I’ve been looking for the word (sonder) by trying to type out what I remembered of its definition in Google and came across your post. Lovely piece of writing. ^_^


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