The horror of what must, yet cannot, be true

There’s a type of experience that I feel should have its own word, because nothing that I can think of seems like a fair description.

A first pass would be something like agony, utter horror, a feeling that you can’t stand this, that you are about to fall apart. But those aren’t actually the thing, I think. They are reactions to the thing.

The thing is more like a sense of utter horrifying impossibility. I suspect it’s the kind of an experience H. P. Lovecraft had in mind when talking about mind-breaking sights and things that man was not meant to know.

Suppose you feel an immense need to throw up and know that you are in fact going to throw up, and at the same time you absolutely cannot throw up, because you are in a bus full of people or something. Or to take a stronger example, someone you deeply care about must be alive because you deeply love them, and at the same time you also know for certain that they are dead.

There’s a sense of… you have two facts, and your mind feels like both of them must be true. But they also cannot both be true. It’s like they’re physical objects, magnetic so that they repel each other, and both cannot be in the same place at the same time because physical objects don’t work that way.

Except that, now they are. Some irresistible force has pushed them together and that is tearing the entire universe apart, reshaping the laws of nature to force them to accommodate this fact.

The thing that I’m trying to find a good word for, is that sense of impossibility that accompanies the world being torn apart.

Likely we don’t have a good word for this, because we ordinarily cannot see it. The mind recoils from it, and we only remember the sense of agony that surrounded it. It’s only in some unusual states of consciousness such as deep meditation, that two facts can get pressed against each other in such a way that the conscious mind is forced to stay present and witness the moment of impossibility.

I suspect that the two facts feel like mutually repelling objects because in a sense they are. That the mind is built to treat unpleasant feelings and ideas as something literally repulsive, an independent patch of the world that pushes against that which the mind accepts as true. My hand touches something hot and I quickly pull it away, the painfulness of the object repelling any desire to approach. Then the same mechanism for avoiding physical pain got recruited for avoiding emotional and social pain, and unpleasant beliefs and experiences.

But sometimes you need to grab the hot object anyway, do the unpleasant thing. And sometimes the facts come with overwhelming force, and you have to admit something that you kept struggling against.

I imagine facts and dislikes as kind of like large serpents or sea monsters, circling each other deep in the unconscious mind. Sometimes the facts take over a certain territory, forcing the disliked ideas to withdraw and adopt a more cramped space. They might twist themselves into elaborate tightly-bound knots, trying to find a way to exist in the narrow space that’s left between the facts, construct increasingly contrived rationalizations that let a person avoid facing what’s true.

And sometimes the dislikes push back. A fact encroached too quickly on territory that was too painful, triggered an internal wave of nausea that strengthened the aversion. The serpent-monsters of pain come out in numbers, force the sense of truth away, mark a region as one that must never be believed in again. A fanatic is confronted by the impossibility of their belief and rather than truly facing it, sinks even deeper into delusion, willing to proclaim any insane belief as true.

But even though facing the facts feels like an impossibility and like the end of the world, it’s actually not. Upon seeing the horror, the mind adjusts, reshapes the structure of its beliefs to accommodate for both things being true. Afterwards there is only a memory of having faced something horrible, and in its wake, two objects that have melted seamlessly together.


    • More like what happens when cognitive dissonance fails. I recognise the feeling described from when I came out to myself as trans in 2009. IMO the dissonance is the pre-realization coping strategy that stops your contradictory ideas from fighting. The actual fight happens after that, and it’s a distressing, horrific experience: there’s a reason people try to avoid it.

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