This post drew my attention to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows which coined the word “sonder” meaning “the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”. What struck a chord for me was Sharanya’s comment about the need for the word for the opposite of “sonder”, “the feeling I’d describe as the wall one hits against in certain individuals despite one’s core curiosity about and attunement to others.”
I have met so many of these people, most of them of the male persuasion. Boys, for whatever reason (my theory is infantile and very early childhood socialization reinforced by later socialization) excel at putting up walls, their whole gender identity in fact seems to hinge upon it. It was why, after I got over my fascination with the mysterious male sex and my desire to be one of them so that I too could have some of that power, I grew bored of them. Bored, basically, of the walls.
Last semester I took a qualitative research methodology class. One of the exercises was for a group of classmates to interview one classmate. I ended up being the interviewee and even though it was just an exercise to a very boring set of questions, I answered honestly from my personal experience, sharing details, some not positive, of my family life. I ended up bringing up something that upset even me, and later I thought, I should not have been quite so frank. But I did it because I know how boring it is as an interviewer to get the same safe answers. And also because at some level I thought my experiences honestly shared might help someone. I have been helped by other people generous enough to honestly share their experiences, painful ones too, and I try to pay that forward as long as the situation is not going to adversely affect me too much (ergo this blog).
My colleague who was also in the group was shocked at how much I revealed. He is also a person whose walls became apparent to me fairly quickly, the quintessential male from a part of Europe known for its reserve. We are close because we talk about a lot of things related to graduate school and possibly he has shared more with me than with other people, but his walls are so clear. They amuse me because they are so obvious. And I don’t have the patience to get past them.
I have a good number of male friends but no male besties. Because to be someone I think of as a Friend in the upper case (and there about five such people, and I’m being generous with the number), we have to have mutually gotten past each others’ walls. During my early teens when I hungered after male power, I had my walls too. But increasingly, I let people into the living room if not the bedroom of my inner life fairly easily. And if people insist on keeping me in the hall or corridor, then I cannot be bothered because these people bore me. I have no interest in their superficialities and pretensions of coherence.
Hence the only males I’ve been close to are the ones I’m sexually attracted to. The sex seems to help men bring down their walls. I guess “girlfriend” or “wife” or “lover” is a marker for “can let the chinks in my armour show”. No wonder married men are in danger of forgetting their mothers and sisters in favour of their wives, possibly because they discover the pleasure of the collapsed walls. And even then, they never really bring down their walls like women do.
I don’t quite understand why when someone asks “how are you?” people don’t honestly share something real instead of “fine”. Sometimes people don’t know how to deal with the response, but often it gives them something to go on. My impatience with the average social gathering is that it is full of people with their walls up so that the only safe conversation is work, and it pains me that people are reduced to “what do you do”, even though I have fallen back on that in my day. I don’t really go to these social gatherings anymore so it’s not a huge problem for me. Whatever is said of mothers (usually condescendingly), at least their default conversation is their children, and the anxiety or joy there is real.
I don’t know if I would categorize the feeling that one cannot get past the walls as a sorrow. I am resigned to it enough to mostly not register it. However, I guess, once in a while you meet someone and they seem interesting and then you come right up against their wall, and sigh, and walk away.