Umwelt and “the other”

A long time ago, I wrote a post about the word sonder. Since you all probably don’t need or want to go back and read my random ramblings from 2020, the basic idea is that everyone is living their own lives, separate from yours. And that you will never have the privilege of knowing everything about those lives – only they will know that.

Sonder came back to me when I read Ed Yong’s recent piece on Umwelt in The Atlantic. Umwelt is the concept that each animal (and I would include humans in this) has its own “sliver of reality”, as Yong said. Yong focuses on animals and how their perceptions of the world are so very different from those of humans, thanks to different senses, abilities, color perception, and many, many other things. A tick (to use one of the examples in the article) has a very different perception of the world than I do. Same goes for all other animals.

Extending that to humans, it made me think that I will never know the world in the exactly the same way as other humans. I will never know what it is like to live in their bodies. I won’t know what it feels like for them to move through the world. It’s a humbling thought – we are all the center of our own stories, of our own worlds. But so is everyone else. And no one person’s story is more important than any other person’s. (Granted, some people may think their stories, their lives, are more important than others’, but that’s not a philosophy or worldview that I follow… )

I have seen this in my work life, my personal life, my day-to-day life. I have my own way of seeing the world, and so do my students, and my colleagues, my parents, my friends… It’s immensely valuable to me to try to improve my understanding of how others see the world. Without trying to learn at least a tiny bit about others’ lives, I can’t really know them. This hit home last week when I was learning more about the new students in my seminar class. There are four of them – all have unique histories and experiences and contexts that will influence who they are as students in my class, and who they become as they move through and beyond graduate school. Like all Umwelten, they also have their own limits to how they perceive the world, just as I do. Knowing even the tiniest bit about who they are helps me when I listen to their insights in class, when I grade their assignments, when I challenge them during our discussions.

And then another article came across my feed, this time from Raptitude. The author of that piece makes the case that we are always The Other in everyone else’s life. We come and go in others’ lives, but we’re not the center of their stories. They are.

Another humbling thought. I’m the center of my life, sure. But you are the center of your life – I am a bit player, who wanders through periodically with a new blog post. I’m not even a primary Other in your lives – I suspect I am waaaay down on the list, to be honest, as I’m not even a daily presence in your lives.

But even those minor, or secondary, Others can be so important in our lives. They can offer insights, different ways of seeing a situation, different perspectives.

We may never know what it is like to be living someone else’s life. We may never know what it’s like to live in their body. But we can still learn from them. We can expand our own worlds by learning more about theirs.

There are some people who never want to learn about others’ lives. To them, I guess, it’s more important to focus on their own ways of being in the world. But to me? It’s critical to know more about the worlds the Others in my life inhabit. Otherwise (sorry, couldn’t resist…), how can I expand my knowledge of the world? How can I expand my knowledge of them as a person? If I don’t try, then I’ll just go through life in my own little bubble of reality, blissfully unaware that my life is so very different from others’ lives. It seems a lonely and isolating way to live, if I’m being honest. I can’t even conceive of being so, well, uncurious about others.

What is it about some people that makes them inherently curious about the world and how others see it? And, in contrast, what is it about other people that makes them so focused on their own lives? Questions for another day (as this is getting really long)… but oh, so interesting to contemplate. (And, can people change? Can they go from wanting to know more about others’ lives to being completely uninterested? Seems impossible to me, but.. maybe?)

8 thoughts on “Umwelt and “the other”

  1. Such a thought-provoking post! I’ve always had an insatiable curiosity about the people around me. To not have this curiosity… it must make people-watching so boring! I loved imagining what’s going on in people’s lives. I guess that’s why I have a blog and love to read blogs! I love getting that insider look into a person’s life.

    1. People watching is the best. Seriously. I could sit and people watch all day. I can’t imagine not being fascinated by what is happening in others’ lives. You’re totally right about the “insider look”, and it’s one reason I’ve tried to shift to make this blog more personal while also maintaining my connection to quotes and insights about life right now. It’s hard, sometimes, to open my life up to other peoples’ eyes, but… if I enjoy doing the same to them, then perhaps they enjoy reading about my (very odd :>) life. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. That Raptitude article was so thought provoking. I saw it too, and should really circle back around and ponder it some more.

    I don’t think about this concept much at all – maybe because my brain currently feels overwhelmed with life. But it’s such a fascinating thought process to follow through…

    1. I know, Elisabeth. I read it at least twice and have it saved for more ponderings in my Evernote.
      I find it fascinating that – right now, at least – this is not something that you do. I suspect being in a very different – busy – sometimes chaotic, perhaps? – phase of life might diminish one’s curiosity about others’ lives. You are so focused on your own and your family members’ lives – it likely leaves little time for such existential ponderings! Thank you for sharing the other point of view – one, obviously, that is not applicable to me. (And through this, I have learned just a bit more about you, and your life… So thank you for that, too. <3)

  3. This is very interesting, Anne. This was a concept in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows that I read recently, that is that we are stars of our own movies and everyone else is an extra. Also, that we do not know what a room is like when we are not in it.
    I think everyone is so interesting and has their own stories; I too am fascinated by other people’s lives.

    1. Oooh, that book is on my TBR. Perhaps it should move up my list after reading your comment! I’ll have to re-read your review.
      And oh! I like that extension of leaving the room and then not knowing what is transpiring. You’re right – remove yourself from the mix, and… what happens? It’s not like you can ever know, because re-entering the space will necessarily change it, yet again.
      As Stephany said, it may be a characteristic of people who blog and read personal blogs (still) on the Interwebs are drawn to this idea of learning more about others’ lives. I know I have learned from reading all of your blogs! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Oh, this type of “contemplating life” is right up my alley… I’ve always, since I was a little kid, wondered what other people’s lives are all about, how they begin or end their day, what goes on behind their “foreheads” LOL it’s something one can ponder ad absurdum because you’ll NEVER know the truth.

    Thanks for sharing the Raptitude article, I just read it… there’s so much truth in it. “Most of the time, no matter how large [someone’s] role in your story, theyโ€™re simply offscreen โ€” somewhere out there in the world, doing who knows what.” Haha, that kinda made me laugh, but it’s true. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live someone else’s life, to be born in a different time or place in the world. It’s so fascinating to contemplate.

    For what it’s worth, I am glad you’re a “bit player” in my life, Anne. Thanks for sharing some of your thoughts with us!

    1. San – I’m so sorry! This completely slipped out of my inbox and I never replied.

      You’re right – you’ll never know the truth about what someone else is thinking…because even if they share, they’re sharing it through the lens of what THEY think. It’s so fascinating – I do wonder how some people don’t wonder about these things! (Clearly, I wonder a lot. ;>)

      I think I like time travel stories – or alternate reality stories (I loved loved loved “Sliding Doors”, the movie with… Gwyneth Paltrow? Maybe? Some blonde.). The idea of a different life – in a different time – fascinates me. What would happen if I were dropped in X location at Y time? What would that be like? It’s one of the most fun flights of imagination I can think of.

      I’m so glad you are in my life, too, San. I value this community so, so much, and I am so grateful that it has slowly revealed itself to me. You were instrumental in that! <3

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