The United States needs “sonder”

I began this blog on May 3 with an introductory post called “Hi. How are you? I’m fine, but…” In it, I recount some of the lows of my 2019–2020 school year. I am, after all, a teacher and therefore measure time through the lens of my profession. Is this what we call a perk?

Anyway, in case you didn’t follow the link, let me bullet point it for you. In short, 2019–2020 was not a banner school year for your ol’ boy Stueve. My dog died. My friend died. I fell victim to a rare infection called mycobacterium chelonae. This — because 2020 — caused me to miss most of third quarter and ultimately resulted in three surgeries before the school year was out. Of course, to add terrible icing on an already nasty cake, these surgeries happened as the COVID-19 pandemic surged. My first surgery, which was in January if I remember right, was pretty standard. However, by the final one which took place near the end of May, I was in a whole new world. My wife could not accompany me, everyone had a mask on, and the safety precautions at the hospital were dramatically increased. Still, despite my health problems, my staff of some 30-odd teenagers managed to produce a yearbook as well as keep our school news website updated with semi-regular videos and podcasts until the end of April.

All in all, a win (considering the circumstances).

Unfortunately, for me, things got worse.

One afternoon in late May my son had to run me to the emergency room because I was having intense chest pains. I thought I was dying. Turns out, my gallbladder is totally calcified and in need of removal.

But wait. There’s more.

As my gallbladder issues were discovered, so too was the fact that I have a congenital heart defect called bicuspid aortic valve. Apparently, it’s gone unnoticed for nearly 43 years. Those days of being my body’s dirty little secret are over because essentially the condition is causing my heart to leak. It will require surgery. Recovery time could be upwards of twelve weeks.

Good times.

You think I’m done? If so, I’ll direct you to the third sentence in this post. If you do not understand why that is relevant then you should probably stop reading now. Or, if you really, really want to know my feelings, take a look at this post.

As of today’s post, July 12, I am nervous. What is school going to look like in a month? That’s right, we start in a month, not “in the fall” as so many people seem to believe. Will I be in the classroom? If not, where will I be? A hospital bed perhaps? Maybe a morgue? Who knows? I guess I could be in school and then a week later in a hospital bed or at one of my student’s funerals. Or maybe, just maybe, all of the doctors and scientists who are saying, “Opening school is a bad idea,” are wrong and everything will be fine.

The possibilities are endless.

I know, I know. “What does this have to do with that weird word ‘sonder’ that’s in the headline, Stueve?” Right?

I’m glad you asked.

In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig, readers learn that “sonder” is a word for “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” When I pop on social media or read the comments section on articles about COVID (or any other controversial topic) it is evident that more people need to understand this word.

For, if you take a moment, just one moment, to come to terms with the fact that every person you pass on the street has a life as rich as your own, it is more difficult to laugh off your refusal to wear a mask even when science says it literally helps everyone. If you have empathy and understanding, it is far more difficult to say things like, “Only 1% die of COVID, so who cares?” Incidentally, I’m no math teacher, but I believe 1% of 8 billion is 80,000,000.

Let that sink in for a moment.

You may be thinking, “Stueve, your life in no way sounds as rich and awesome as mine. In fact, dude, your life sounds pretty terrible right now.” You know what? To a certain degree, you’re right. I’m in a bad way. But I also have a new puppy. I have friends. I have students. I have a wife and children that I love. I have a mom worried sick over me, sisters, and a father, nieces, nephews, cousins, co-workers, etc, etc, etc. I have desires. I have hopes and dreams. I’ve recently been informed one of my short stories is going to be included in an upcoming horror anthology. I binge watched the latest season of Unsolved Mysteries on Netflix and am eager for an “Update” episode. I had planned on purchasing a new car later this year. I was looking forward to voting in November. My favorite food is gummy candy. I enjoy all kinds of music and have a comic book collection that could rival a fair few collections in the area. My favorite season is autumn, or maybe summer. It’s a toss up really I guess.

In other words, my life is rich. I enjoy it. In fact, right now, if someone offered me eternal life, I’d take it and damn the consequences, as, I’m sure, many others would. For the most part, individually, people tend to like living. People like living, it is safe to say, because their lives are full, even those people whose paths have never crossed. This must be a hard concept for several to grasp. I can only assume it is because we do not have a strong enough grasp on the concept of “sonder.”

I don’t know for sure. I’m no linguist. I’m no psychologist.

To me “sonder” means recognizing that everyone is as valid as you and yours. “Sonder” means having empathy for those around you. Right now, “sonder” means wearing a damn mask because the science is real and it is literally a minor inconvenience for you that could have monumental effects for everyone else, even those you do not know. Remember, they also have a full life they’d like to continue living.

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AE Stueve

AE Stueve

AE Stueve teaches and writes in Omaha, NE. Check out all of his available work at aestueve.com