The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

February 17, 2013

Our emotional lives, especially the sad parts, are far richer than language has equipped us to describe.

To identify something, to pick something out as its own thing and give a name to it, is the foundation of all knowledge. You can’t talk about something if it doesn’t have a name. John Koenig, in his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is doing just this: taking chunks of raw, undifferentiated emotional reality and carving them into something recognizable by others. That other can and will recognize these emotional states has the fortunate side effect of dissipating some of the loneliness at the heart of them.

A few of my favorites:

n. the age at which you become older than your parents were when you were born, which signals that your leg of the relay race has already begun, having coasted in their slipstream as they tackled the mountain stages of life, leaving you strong, energetic and deeply mortified by their loud yellow jerseys.

n. sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out, that you’ll dutifully pass on the joke of being alive without ever learning the punchline—the name of the beneficiary of all human struggle, the sum of the final payout of every investment ever made in the future—which may not suit your sense of humor anyway and will probably involve how many people it takes to change a lightbulb.

n. the smallest measurable unit of human connection, typically exchanged between passing strangers—a flirtatious glance, a sympathetic nod, a shared laugh about some odd coincidence—moments that are fleeting and random but still contain powerful emotional nutrients that can alleviate the symptoms of feeling alone.