Theres a great word I discovered a while back whilst trawling through the romantic depths of the Internet. It originates from the dictionary of obscure sorrows. The word is Sonder and its definition is:
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
As someone who has whiled away many hours in Dublin city cafes contemplating the lives of strangers, this word just resonated with me. Have you ever sat in a café in Dublin gawking at strangers wondering about the banalities of their lives? Where do they work? Are they married? Are they happy? The word makes me feel very small. Like one small piece of a much larger puzzle, disconnected from the bigger picture. But it is this word that as led me on a quest to understand the lives of as many strangers as I can.
A few months ago in Dublin there was an incident on Dame Street. A man climbed a four-story building in what was a clear suicide attempt. It was an upsetting incident made all the worse by the reaction of the public. When we should have offered this man support and compassion, we demonstrated ignorance and intolerance. A crowd gathered around the building and passersby took to twitter and social media to share images of the mans distress. Captions complained about the traffic and online news sites live reported the incident. From the crowd, someone yelled jump.
Thankfully the man was talked down by emergency services. Unfortunately the whole incident highlighted the need for mental health reform, particularly the conversation around mental health in the media. Myself and a friend, a mental health activist began looking at the conversation around mental health and thinking of ways we could influence its change.
Together we founded Love From Future You, a movement that endeavored to encourage people to acknowledge their own mental health. What followed was a foray into the taboo and a look at mental health in a way that had never been explored before.
We did a really simple thing. We asked people to share their experiences. We made it as accessible as possible. Then we combined them all to highlight the similarities. We created a community of people affected by the issue. And that's why I'm standing here today. We must not consider building campaigns, we must instead build movements and do this we must include people from the start. We asked people to stop watching and to instead start participating.
Everything about Love From Future You was generated by the people it affected. The language, the tone, the length, the severity of the issue. As "campaigners," we simply facilitated the story being told.
In effect, we had a new understanding of the issue because we sought an understanding of the lives of people it affected.
The Love From Future You video was shared hundreds of times and became the most viewed video in Ireland during mental health week. And now If you've ever been on the comments section of a news site you'd know that the internet is not always a friendly place. But to our delight, the comments section was full of advice and conversation did change from one of intolerance to one of acceptance, understanding and dare I say empathy.
The most important moment of the whole thing for me was when we took to the streets to promote the initiative and I had a moment of sonder. (I'm not actually entirely sure how to use that word but I wanted to get it back in).
Aoife, the co-founder and I took to the streets to gather responses from people. We wrote in really big letters across the street "what advice would you give yourself?" People stopped, slowly at first but quickly momentum gathered and soon there were maybe 100 snippets of advice written on the ground. That was my first moment of realization, that this is an issue that affects everyone and people were just waiting for the chance to be heard. A woman approached me and asked quietly, "Is this a mental health thing?"
I answered her honestly and told her it was but that neither myself nor Aoife were trained mental health professionals. We simply wanted people to have open and honest conversations around mental health. She turned to me then and told me how she'd just come out of a psychiatric meeting and how she walked around feeling so alone. Thinking all the time that she was the only one feeling the way she did. Immediately a young man from New Zealand joined the conversation and told us that his best friend had died by suicide a year previous. He said he had had no idea how lonely is friend must have been.
For me that was such an eye-opening moment. Here were two people who would otherwise pass each other, each haunted by the same issue yet feeling so baffled and alone.
We live in the most connected time there has ever been. We must now connect. We must open up. We must be honest.
I believe that when we do that. When we give wholly of ourselves. When we push the boundaries and stop people watching and instead start participating that then we will gain an understanding of people and in turn an understanding of society. And when we fully understand society change will not only be possible, it will be inevitable.
I often come back to that word sonder and after conversations with friends and strangers and the experiences with this movement I began thinking instead of the word Sonderlust which to me, is a desire to understand the complexities of the lives of strangers.
It was with this in mind that I founded Create Media a new media organization that endeavors to create content to impact social change. You can find out more about us at createmedia.ie and please help us by spreading the message.
So my call to action to you is simple. Be open. Be honest. Stop watching and start participating.
For I whole heartedly believe, and I have seen, that a better, more tolerant, more accepting world can only be possible if we firstly understand the people who inhabit it.