Willing suspension of disbelief
The only oddity one could fix was that his nose, which was otherwise of a good shape, was just slightly turned sideways at the tip; as if when it was soft it had been tapped on one side with a toy hammer. The thing was hardly a deformity; yet I cannot tell you what a living nightmare it was to me. As he stood there in the sunset-stained water, he affected me as some hellish sea-monster just risen roaring out of a sea like blood. I don’t know why a touch on the nose should affect my imagination so much. I think it seemed as if he could move his nose like a finger. And as if he had just that moment moved it.
- G.K. Chesterton - The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914)
When I was very young, my great-uncle Oscar showed me a magic trick. He gripped his left thumb firmly in his right hand and then pulled. The tip of his thumb slid right off and floated there for a moment before reattaching. My childhood world of simple rules exploded. I was terrified and shaken. Fingers were removable. What else didn’t I know? What other things were possible?
I look back at the little boy and laugh now about how firmly I believed in his little trick, but that feeling of suddenly not understanding the world around you has stayed with me. In some of the more profound moments of learning it crept back into the forefront.
I was sitting in 6th grade science class when I casually flipped through my text book. In the opening paragraph of the new chapter we were beginning was a fairly innocuous little sentence mentioned in passing without a further note. It said just before the paragraph break, that as you approach objects of intense gravity, time slows down. Let me say that again. Time slows down. Imagine yourself in sixth grade suddenly realizing that time isn’t the constant, ever-flowing march of inevitability that you thought it was. More than a removable thumb, this idea pulled me out of my comfort zone and tossed me into a spiral of questioning, doubting, and disbelief.
The textbook never mentioned it again; how’s that for teasing? Luckily my teacher shed some light on the subject. He told us about Einstein and the idea of relativity. Things became a little more settled in my head when I could grasp this amazing mystical idea in some frame of reference. It allowed me to suspend my uncertainty long enough to recognize the truth. It allowed me to experience something so horrifyingly “other”, but not fear it or let my imagination twist it into something gruesome.
In this idea originated the plan of the “Lyrical Ballads”; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge - Biographia Literaria (1817)
In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, the author talks about things he calls Black Swan Events. They are the outlying, improbable events that turn things upside down. In the 17th century, it was common knowledge that “all swans are white,” so much so that the term, “black swan,” became synonymous with something that was impossible and couldn’t exist. How shocking was it for those people when, in the 18th century, black swans were discovered in Western Australia? What had been a term for the impossible was instantly transformed into an argument against the impossible, or perhaps to keep your eyes open to the possibility of the improbable.
Taleb is concerned with the practical implications of these events, of how they might affect banks, or politics. His talks focus on the true events, like learning that time is relative. He values these as either negative or positive based on their impact to a particular group of people. But what about the false events, the events like my great uncle’s thumb popping off his hand suddenly. The impact is no less profound, even if it is only an illusion or shadow of truth. In its falsehood it still affects and influences. It still strikes with a profound sense of surprise. Afterward, the effect can still be rationalized by hindsight and even expected, even if that rationalization determines the deception. It fits the same rules for a Black Swan Event, and it itself may be positive or negative. What value can we find in these?
What about you? What moments were so profound to you that it shattered your understanding of the world? Was it a real event, or a trick? Was it in life or in literature? Was it in a classroom or in a movie?