To Sonder

We're all just atoms colliding with each other

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You never know who you might change.

When I was in eighth grade, I liked a guy named Jason. I had a silly nickname for him (Barren, for reasons I no longer remember) so I could talk to my friends about him without being discovered.

Our middle school was situated between two high school districts, which meant half of my friends would move on to one school and half to the other, all determined by where we lived. My family happened to be moving from one district to the other, and for a pivotal moment, I landed in a loophole where I had the choice to write down my current address or my new one.

Signing that paper was a small gesture, but it was one that would irrevocably change me. A quick penstroke wouldn’t just determine my school: It would decide the people I’d meet, the friends I’d make, the teachers I’d have, the classes I’d take, even the colleges I’d apply to—and ultimately the direction of my life.

I decided to give our school administrators my new address, and register in the new district, for one reason: I had heard Jason was going to that high school.

He didn’t. I never saw him again. But by then, my life’s course was already altered.

In my recent podcast interview with Shanita Nicholas and Amanda-Jane Thomas, founders of Sip & Sonder in Los Angeles, we talked about the idea of “sonder,” or, “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.”

I think we’ve all reflected on these moments in our own lives. It’s easy to feel sonder when you’re sitting in a coffee shop, idly watching others come and go. Maybe the moments are even smaller and more fragmentary than that, like the briefest overheard conversation, the sensation of snatching just a second of someone’s life.

But so much of that kind of sonder feels passive. What happens when sonder is in motion? What happens when we don’t just observe the complexities we all share, but feel their direct impact? Instead of orbiting planets, what if we’re atoms instead, bumping up against one another and going in different directions because we happened to collide?

In our podcast conversation, Shanita mentioned one of these collisions as she was scrolling through Instagram:

There are individuals that are posting up their new businesses or their networks and [I’m] seeing Sip & Sonder in the background. It’s like, wow. Not even knowing that was something that was happening behind the scenes and hearing about other people connecting in that way—it’s certainly impactful for them, but it’s impactful for us too.

Moments of change happen at Sip & Sonder. Moments of change happened because of Sip & Sonder. Shanita shared the moments she observed, but what about all the ones she didn’t get to see? How many touch points are there in our daily routines that could potentially be life-changing?

As individuals, it’s hard to know what our impact might be. A piece of advice can start an acquaintance on a new journey. A shared story can change someone’s life. And truly, what has kept me drawn to and invested in coffee is that coffee shops are centers of activity—hubs of collision. I had a conversation with someone just recently, and he mentioned wanting coffee to be at the forefront of his new business venture because “every single person I’ve connected with I met randomly at a coffee shop.”

If you’ve seen the show “Community,” you know about The Timelines—the thousands of pathways your life could have ended up taking, all stemming from a small decision. (On the show, they run through seven different scenarios, all changed drastically by the simple choice of who has to run downstairs and let in the pizza delivery person.) Part of working in the service industry is being an entity people run into and bounce off of, made different in some way.

That guy I liked in eighth grade will never know he changed me, but he did. Making that choice was a singular, precise moment in my life. I could drop a pin on it, like in Google Maps, and the exact coordinates would show up.

One of the reasons I’m writing about this now is the new wave of gratitude I feel, knowing I could be part of someone’s timeline, potentially in a way I would have never guessed. Ultimately, we can never know how our actions will land, or how transformative they will be. But we can recognize that we are all imbued with that potential influence.

Is this about empowerment? Is this about building an equitable workplace? I’d say so, but I’d also say this is about magic. The magic, however, isn’t in those inevitable moments of collision—it’s in all the threads you can draw between those small impacts to wherever you are right now.

Listen to our episode with Shanita Nicholas and Amanda-Jane Thomas on Substack, Apple iTunes, or Spotify.

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