Skip to main content

Billions and Billions: A Story Worth Reading

Random Observation

It’s subjective, right, and partially random on the best of days, this concept of a “story worth reading,” or a “must-read novel.” Give that story to five-hundred people, have them read it, and ask them for an in-depth review, and you are liable to receive five-hundred different and varied responses.

A story worth reading, for me, might make a good bird-cage liner for someone else.

Which leads me to a word I learned a few weeks back, namely sonder:

“Sonder” is the profound, individual realization that each person you meet is living their own life, that each person has their own world fitted with their own personal worries, pains, pleasures, ambitions, routines, etc– The same as yourself, in a sense, but also as intricate and as different as could be imagined. “Sonder” is the idea that there are millions of stories happening all at once, around each other, oblivious and contained from one another.

A story worth reading . . . a life worth knowing.

Oddly, just before I learned that new word, I had been thinking quite a bit about its meaning. There are seven-point-six billion people on this planet, and every single one of them is as complex, and as simple, and as important, as me. I am both a pimple on the ass of creation and a completely unique individual, a rarity, a one-of-a-kind treasure, as are all of you reading this. It both fills me with wonder and squashes me with perspective, at the same time, which really is as it should be.


There Once Was a Man Named James

James O’Dowd was his name, a young farmer in Charles City, Iowa, circa 1920, well-respected in that farming community, a pillar of the locals, a man known to be honest, fair, and reliable. James married Belva Lockwood, and the two of them had three children. Those three children married and had seventeen children, and those seventeen, in the Year of our Lord, 2021, have eighty-seven children and counting.

I am one of the seventeen, my son one of the eighty-seven, legacies every one of us, going forth among the masses to live our lives, lives which will hopefully be described as honest, fair, and reliable.

I don’t know how many people James O’Dowd met during this lifetime. I don’t know how his life affected others, but to gain such a reputation, worth engraving on a tombstone, I am guessing his effect was positive. How many could he have known? Several hundred, certainly; perhaps a thousand? And me? Twenty years of teaching, many hours of working other jobs, belonging to, striving for, it is probably safe to guess at least a thousand, perhaps thousands.

One of the seventeen, affecting thousands each of us, passing it down to the eighty-seven, affecting still more thousands, and back we go to sonder, the mind-bogging enormity of it all, the complexity of this thing we call civilization, seven-point-six billion little universes, circling each other, ships in the night, beacons of hope or symbols of fear as the dark waters roil and deck chairs wash overboard.

James O'Dowd and some of his offspring

James O'Dowd and some of his offspring

It’s a Hell of a Thing

I think about this often, when I am out in public, watching people pass by me, realizing that each and every one of them is concentrating so hard on their world, the day in, day out minutiae of being a member of this species, their jobs, their debt, their children, their health, their dreams, regrets, triumphs and defeats, whirling around their gray matter, dominating their thoughts, convinced that their private universe is the only universe that matters, that their problems are unique, that their triumphs are of historical significance . . . when . . . in truth . . . it’s all been seen a billion times, all been done a billion times, same old, same old, and yet, to the individual, so mammoth, so earth-shaking, so gravitas.

Billions of little universes circling billions of other universes, in sight of each other and yet out of touch, a constant flow of energy, trillions of miniscule amps of energy, circling each other, interacting with each other . . . needing each other!

And It Leaves Me to Wonder

If it’s all been done, if it’s all been experienced countless times, if we all share 99% in common life experiences, why is it that empathy is such a foreign concept for so many? Why is compassion so hard, for so many, to grasp?

Watching the news the other night, the day so much of our state experienced widespread flooding, and there was a story about a man who died in that flooding. His car was swept off the road by the flood waters, he crawled out a window to escape the waters rising inside of his car, and he was promptly swept away in the waters.

His car was found later that day, in a field of spent corn, but there was no sign of his body. His family, obviously, was distraught. They organized search teams, and for eight hours those search teams walked through flooded fields looking for Enrique. The grief on the faces of the family members said it all. They knew their loved one was dead; they simply wanted to find him so they could give him a “proper burial.”

By the time Enrique was found, wedged against the trunk of a giant fir tree, his family, extended family, and close friends easily numbered in the hundreds, all carrying the weight of grief, their faces signaling to the world that a terrible loss had occurred.

I did not know Enrique, but I do know grief. Once experienced it will never be forgotten.

Empathy . . . compassion . . . billions of little universes circling billion of other universes.



A Drive Downtown

I wonder how many people take the time, when out in public, to actually notice the people around them? It’s an amazing thing to do. Smiles, frowns, anger, shouts, whispers, tears, all on display. A micro glimpse at the whole of humanity, on any city block, on any given day, the content, the desperate, the hopeful, the hopeless, you can see it if you look closely enough . . . or are you one of those who will not make eye-contact, preferring to pass by them all like proverbial ships in the night, safety in anonymity, don’t tell, don’t ask, the walls impenetrable, safely ensconced in a cocoon of indifference?

We are the human race. We are social animals. We need each other, bottom line, no joke, we don’t do well in isolation, this writer is living proof of that fact, the hermit desperately in need of companionship, a beacon on a stormy sea, social media my buoy, reaching out to the billions, hoping to make contact with an intelligent life force, hoping to be noticed, hoping to never be forgotten, for is there a wound worse than being invisible in a constant flow of energy?

The Point of It All

I suppose the point is in the eye of the beholder, take what you want from this, leave the rest, hopefully something here tickled your brain, imprinted upon your heart, made you think for just one moment, seven-point-six billion unique individuals and yet oh, so similar, little universes circling little universes, and if we are lucky a connection is formed, a bond cemented, and a meaningful relationship is formed.

Born from energy, surrounded by energy, invisible and yet real, little universes making a grand universe, each a grain of sand affecting all other grains of sand . . . and so it goes!

May the warm blanket of understanding comfort us all.

2021 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

Related Articles