The Elegant Universe

Sonder
n. 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—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

We grow up thinking the universe revolves around us. Who can blame us? From the moment we open our eyes people start cooing over us. “Look how beautiful.” “She’s so special.” Friends and family hanging in our immediate orbit fight with each other to hold us for just a few seconds.

A sneeze, a cough, a stifled cry, and our poor parents drop everything and run to us in a heartbeat. We are their masters, wielding invincible power. We constantly keep them on the edge, making sure they don’t get enough sleep or leaving them with just enough guilt to make them doubt if they are doing a good job. But for all the trials and hardship, we give them plenty of love in return. We’re not inconsiderate, at least not yet…

For the first six months, the world, as we know it, is only as big as our mother’s embrace. We are always wrapped in her arms. It is only after we crawl out of the comfort of her bosom that we understand our place.

As we walk around to explore, we realize that there are restrictions to where we can go and what things we can pick up and put in our mouth. We are not free to do as we please. But the real shocker is to discover that we share our parents’ love with Pippen, the family dog. That’s an enormous blow to our ego.

When we turn five and our mother tells us that we’ll get a baby brother soon, we sense trouble. Our worst fears are confirmed when everyone seems excited even though he looks like a smurf when he is born. Slowly things begin to change around the house. We get kicked out of our parents’ bed and are forced to sleep alone in the dark. We notice we have to cry louder and longer to get their attention. And we are scolded for biting our younger brother to see if he is actually real.

Our universe starts to crumble before our eyes. How can we not be at the center of every experience?

Once we move into our teenage years, life gets even more complicated. We’re so full of it, full of ourselves that we struggle to reconcile with other people’s wants and desires. Personal wants reign supreme. So when we don’t get selected in the basketball team, or don’t get the girl of our dreams, our sense of entitlement feels bruised.

There comes a point when we stop believing what we know about the universe and its movement. We all, in one form or another, search for a new meaning. We are told our life’s purpose is waiting for us in the real world, at our places of work. So we morph into this high-tech race of cyborgs looking to leave an indelible mark on the universe—much like the message we carved on our classroom desk: “Jawad Was Here, 11/8/97”

Years go by. We lose ourselves in the din of time and routine, and become ghosts in shells—warding off boredom by scrolling through email, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Thanks to our damn phones jammed in our fists, we live increasingly virtual lives, too busy and absorbed in our tiny cocoons. All the while, there in the background, faint and out of focus, the elegant universe moves in ecstatic motion. Sonder.

Fortunately, we are not journeying in the universe but with the universe. “Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in a silent conversation,” writes Elif Shafak in The Forty Rules of Love, echoing the wisdom of Shams Tabriz. “Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories… Do no harm. Practice compassion. And do not gossip behind anyone’s back—not even a seemingly innocent remark! The words that come out of our mouth do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time. One man’s pain will hurt us all. One man’s joy will make everyone smile.”

It’s poignant, humbling, and thought provoking.

We are all engaged in a dance fully choreographed by God—our caring parents, that snarky Pippen, our annoying little brother who is actually better looking, the beautiful girl who broke our heart, the guy on the train who can’t stop staring, the Starbucks employee who is always smiling, our old fart boss we’re avoiding, the homeless man singing, that couple over there fighting, the wind that is blowing, the kids going to school in the morning, Salma Hayek, me writing here, and you.

The entire universe is one being. To quote Alan Watts “Each one of us is a very very delightfully undulation of the energy of the whole universe. Only by our process of miseducation, we’ve been deprived of the knowledge of that fact.”

When will we take notice?

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