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Stranger in Passing Phenomenon

By Chloe Jad

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There is a word for everything.

I knew this the moment I learned the noun, sonder, a neologism from John Koenig’s The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, defining “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” John Koenig essentially coined the “main character” bit this generation identifies with so deeply—especially in the age of social media, where an individual is exposed to an exponentially greater network of human beings than ever before.

Sonder has touched me many times, but without my tongue finding solace in the shape of the word, in a concrete definition for this abstract awareness of existence I felt. Fixating on the cars on the highway, or individuals in a crowded concert, or “extras” in the grocery store; I simultaneously expand and shrink at the realization that every person is their own main character, and I'm everyone else’s extra.

Coming to BU with sonder in my lexicon has been a blessing and a curse. Some days, it’s handy to possess a word that so perfectly encapsulates my existential thoughts, while I walk down Commonwealth Avenue. Other days, all I want is to sink blissfully into the simulation, succumb to “The Matrix,” and to lack the self-awareness to question any narratives other than my own.

Every human being with a consciousness has likely experienced sonder, tending to materialize most intensely when a stranger-in-passing is somehow memorable. For me, strangers are burned into my memory when they evoke envy or inspiration; I tend to linger on someone when they are particularly beautiful, fashionable, or mysterious.

Daily, strangers-in-passing at BU have impacted the trajectory of my day, pulled me out of my music-blasting-through-earbud stupor, and refocused my unseeing gaze so as to acknowledge the idiosyncratic human beings rushing about me.

Following one such fleeting interaction with a memorable stranger, the Stranger-In-Passing Phenomenon occurs: my mind swirls and fills the mystery of this stranger with an entire identity, personality, and aesthetic cultivated by my mere glance. Miraculously, in the few steps covered after our mutual passing-by, I have manufactured an entire universe for this person, romanticized a persona that may be completely false, yet I am so ready to envy it, to desire to embody it.

All this on a walk to class.

The Stranger-In-Passing Phenomenon is not an epiphany that exists in isolation; I find that it directly impacts my self-esteem, self-perception, and the understanding of my individuality in society. I find myself hoping that I emit this desirability to others, that I am the catalyst for another person’s Stranger-In-Passing Phenomenon, that I am so very fashionable and striking that the shock of my existence awakens a stranger to our mutual strangeness.

I pray that I don’t drown in the flux of strangers-in-passing.

Suddenly, the Stranger-In-Passing Phenomenon becomes a mirror, not just a world-lens, that reflects back to me the traits I desire to project out into the world, the persona I wish to embody within the eyes of a passing stranger.

At a school as gargantuan and diverse as BU, the Stranger-In-Passing Phenomenon becomes a tragedy, an exposure to a niche universe of beings - Terriers - and the cognizance that these fleeting encounters may be the only ones, that I may be missing out on soulmates, best friends, mentors, job opportunities, or simply alternate life paths. What amplifies this existential frenzy is the realization that the BU-induced encounter with sonder is a microscopic rendering of the human experience: in the scope of a planet inhabiting nearly eight billion strangers-in-passing, BU is an atom in an organism.

To realize that we exist simultaneously, on the same plane, in the same interstellar location, yet somehow in parallel, is magical yet melancholy. To break the Matrix is to change the odds, to intersect paths and narratives in order to weave what would otherwise never have existed. Basically, talk to strangers. Tell that person you like their outfit, smile at the pretty person in passing, or at least take some inspiration with you as you pass.

My entire being expands to fill the universe while also shrinking to accommodate everyone else’s universe — realizing how gigantic yet how insignificant I really am. My mind is all I can occupy, my universe the only lens I can ever peep through, my body the only avatar I can experience existence through. If that is the case, and the way it will always be, I might as well meet others’ universes, turn strangers into familiars, and be a glitch in the Matrix.

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