From John Koenig’s “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” “sonder” is defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own … an epic story that continues invisibly around you … 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.” It is this idea that made the famous Facebook page Humans of New York (HONY) so fascinating to me, to the point of actually creating my own offshoots of it — first at my home church, and then for the Amherst Christian Fellowship. It is also the reason I learned to cut hair.
When I was a freshman, I had an upperclassman friend who was a self-taught barber and would generously spend a few hours a week cutting other students’ hair for free. During one of the many times I sat in his chair, I asked why he did it. Much of his motivation came from his personal experiences with Jesus Christ; if God had sacrificed so much to save his soul out of love, then he felt it was only right to reflect that same love and grace to those around him (as much as he could). He also saw it as a great way to catch up with old friends or make new friends, not simply because he can chat throughout the 40 minutes, but also given the virtue of the intimacy of the barber’s chair.
The moment you sit in the chair, the fate of your hair is in your barber’s hands. Hair can be a surprisingly important part of our self-image — as those with hair loss or even a bad haircut might attest — so to allow someone to cut your hair immediately establishes a significant relationship of trust. At one point, as one of his clients was telling him something during a haircut, a friend walked in and exclaimed, “Wait a minute — you never told me that. I’m your roommate!” To which the client responded, “Yeah, but … he’s my barber.”
As a professing Christian, I resonate deeply with his desire to love those around him, even in whatever small way he can. At the same time, barbering seemed to be a fascinatingly unique — and frankly, cool — way to serve. Of course, it has an intrinsic artistic nature, but I find much more appeal in getting to know those around me in and through my act of service. I am excited by it for the same reasons I had created those HONY offshoots, except instead of just 10 minutes of focused interview questions, I now have over half an hour with each person. “Sonder” has fostered in me empathy and a love for others’ stories, to be shown the breadth and depth of experiences that even people my age have collected. Hearing those stories, I am reminded of just how limited my own life experiences can be, and so my “sonder” grows.
These same sentiments comprise an important part of my convictions in becoming a doctor. As someone with so much privilege, I almost feel an obligation to make the most of my opportunities to serve the underserved and less fortunate, and problems of health are both ubiquitous and potentially devastating. But more than just contributing to the health care industry, I want to get to know the people I help personally, so that they would be individuals more than numbers and that I might offer a human face to the treatment they receive. In this, the physician occupies a unique and essential place in health care, living with a commitment to serve and to treat people rather than just diseases.
Surprisingly, I have found these ideals of medicine manifest in my barbering. Surgeons often write about how, for all the mechanical precision and operational exactitude required of them, there is an art to their work. Similarly, beyond the working fundamentals and basic principles of barbering, each head is a canvas that demands artistic flexibility and vision. At the same time, I have been blessed with the chance to hear so many people’s personal stories — from their joyous months spent in distant countries to their darker and more private struggles. I’ve exchanged hopes, dreams and transformative life experiences with my clients. I’ve bantered about our immigrant fathers’ incredible hardships, mulled over philosophical quandaries and shared moments of vulnerability and pain for deceased loved ones with them.
My “sonder” had motivated my HONY offshoots and my passion to become a physician; my “sonder” convicted me no less here. So I started “Cuts and Chats,” a Facebook page similar to my HONY offshoots where I post snippets of my conversations with my clients (with their permission, of course). My hope is that Amherst College students might learn about parts of their peers — from interesting life experiences to current struggles and joys — that they might not know otherwise.
My time barbering on campus has been incredibly rewarding, both in the service I provide and the people I have come to know. And “Cuts and Chats,” though young, has already touched people in surprisingly meaningful ways. Whether I’m using clippers or a scalpel, I hope my “sonder” will only grow.