The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines “sonder” as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” The podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People, aka Beautiful/Anonymous, captures this feeling well.
The premise of the show is that the host, comedian Chris Gethard, takes a call from a random fan — the first person who sees his tweet on Twitter asking for people to call — and talks to them for a full hour. The only conditions are that Gethard cannot hang up, the caller stays anonymous and the phone call ends after exactly one hour.
It’s an extension of the common radio practice of taking listener calls, but while these calls often limit the listener to his or her opinion about a given subject, Beautiful/Anonymous shifts the conversation — the listener becomes the subject, the random passerby gets to tell you how their life is as vivid and complex as their own.
Every story makes you feel personally connected to the caller, makes you empathize with their problems and makes you want nothing more than for them to achieve their goals. Creating this relationship between a listener and a random caller is no small feat, but the audio platform is conducive to such a relationship — the caller is merely in your ear, free of the biases that come with vision — from the way someone dresses to their race.
What makes Beautiful/Anonymous work so well is that it brings out sonder in all of us.
The first episode of the show, “Ron Paul’s Baby,” follows the life of a customer service employee — someone who’s easy to get mad at, especially when they can’t solve your problem while talking to you on the phone.
The concept of sonder and, by extension, Beautiful/Anonymous reminds us how easy it is to forget that the customer service employee we’re talking to has had to deal with frustrating phone calls — and frustrated phone callers — for hours (if not days) on end, and probably are paid a wage that leaves them living paycheck to paycheck.
You’d never have thought that the customer service employee might have dreams and aspirations to become an comedian, but his mental health prevented him from bringing himself to pursue them. You’d never guess that his mom was in jail, or that he’d never met his dad until he was 14 years old. You’d never guess that when he was born, the doctor who delivered him was none other than politician Ron Paul.
Beautiful/Anonymous has taught me to approach life with a greater appreciation for what I can’t understand beyond my perception of the people around me, to experience sonder in my daily life by keeping in mind that everyone’s life is subject to complexity beyond my ability to perceive it.
I won’t lie — there have been times when my perception of someone has made me expect more from them than I should have. In a restaurant, for example, if my server isn’t doing a great job or gets an order wrong, I might become frustrated with them.
But Beautiful/Anonymous would take me deeper into that person’s story and make me consider why they might not be doing a great job. Maybe a personal issue is causing them stress, and they aren’t paying as much attention to their work. Maybe they work multiple jobs and also have kids to take care of and haven’t gotten enough sleep lately.
There are simple practices I want to bring to my daily life to appreciate the people around me more, in recognition of their complexity — smiling and saying “thank you” to the security guards who let me in to campus and my dorm building, and putting understanding before being judgmental in my impressions of the people I meet, but don’t fully know.
It’s hard not to believe the first impression I have of someone, or to think about the numerous people in my life beyond their interaction with me, whether it’s a student in my class who I see every day or the person who takes my Starbucks order, but Beautiful/Anonymous has taught me to always keep sonder in mind, and be intentionally aware of the intricacies of the lives of everyone around me.
Karan Nevatia is a freshman majoring in journalism. He is also the news editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Honest to Pod,” runs every other Friday.