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Onism n. the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time.

“You are here. You were lost at first, but soon began sketching yourself a map of the world. Plotting the contours of your life. And like the first explorers, sooner or later you have to contend with the blank spaces on the map. All the experiences you’ve never had. The part of you still aching to know what’s out there.

Eventually these questions take on a weight of their own and begin looming over your everyday life.

All the billions of doors you had to close, in order to take a single step forward.
All the things you haven’t done, and may never get around to doing.
All the risks, that may or may not’ve been real.
All the destinations that you didn’t buy a ticket to.
All the lights you see in the distance that you can only wonder about.
All the alternate histories you narrowly avoided.
All the fantasies that stay dormant inside your head.
Everything you’re giving up to be where you are right now.
The questions that you wrongly assume are unanswerable.

It’s strange how little of the universe we actually get to see.
Strange how many assumptions we have to make just to get by, stuck in only one body, in only one place at a time.
Strange how many excuses we’ve invented to explain why so much of life belongs in the background.
Strange that any of us could ever feel at home, in such an alien world.

We sketch monsters on the map because we find their presence comforting. They guard the edges of the abyss, and force us to look away, so we can live comfortably in the known world, at least for a little while. But if someone were to ask you on your deathbed, what it was like to live here on earth, perhaps the only honest answer would be…

I don’t know. I passed through it once, but I’ve never really been there.””

The voiceover from John Koenig’s latest video, Onism, from his The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows series. Other words include:

  • Sonder – the realisation that everyone has a story
  • Vemödalen – the fear that everything has already been done
  • Avenoir – the desire that memory could flow backwards


Onism is a funky word but the concept is not a new one.

“The frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time, which is like standing in front of the departures screen at an airport, flickering over with strange place names like other people’s passwords, each representing one more thing you’ll never get to see before you die – and all because, as the arrow on the map helpfully points out, you are here.”

We all get it. It’s like an itch, aggressively encouraged by today’s ‘sunsets, travel and sandy beaches’ Zeitgeist that is inescapable to anyone with an internet connection.

I often stare at Google Maps, and my gaze drifts from the arrow of here to somewhere faraway. I wonder what the f*ck I’m doing sitting still, knowing that time’s a finite fuse, ramen is pennies, and the world’s such a big place. Because never in the history of the planet, or the history of the human race, has the world been so small. We can get in a metal tube and literally be on the other side of the Earth in a few hours. We are some of the first people to get this opportunity, so of course it’s appealing.

But sometimes perspective takes a conveniently long time to kick in (or it never does at all). It’s amazing and truly remarkable that the world is now so accessible, but despite this, perhaps the exploration impulse isn’t something to necessarily celebrate or aspire to. Of course it’s valuable and fun and worthwhile and educational to wonder and then to wander, but if it’s always our go-to solution, then something might not be quite right.

Let’s crack out the stoicism. Seneca says this:

“How can novelty of surroundings abroad and becoming acquainted with foreign scenes or cities be of any help? All that dashing about turns out to be quite futile. And if you want to know why all this running away cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company. You have to lay aside the load on your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you.” [Letter II]

And this:

“You do not tear from place to place and unsettle yourself with one move after another. Restlessness of that sort is symptomatic of a sick mind. Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” [Letter XXVIII]

Now I know you should never listen to just one ancient dude from the Roman Age, but he could be right. Pottering about for pottering about’s sake might be a sign of sickness, or even selfishness. I am sick. Maybe you are too.

Perhaps focusing on the reasons why dashing off seems so appealing, should come before deciding to set sail to somewhere new on the map. Because until we examine our own reasons, there’ll probably consistenly be a prevalent struggle with contentment.

Maybe, as the wise Roman said, we should look at changing our soul rather than changing our climate.


(This is the only photo in my library of someone looking like a wise Roman)

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4 comments on this post

  1. wabisabiyoga says:

    Like this a lot Dave, and ‘The Debt Collector…’ made me laugh, loudly. Thank you :)

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