The feeling of breaking an Overton window

Epistemic status: real but incomplete observations.

In late February of 2020, I went to the grocery store at 2am with my husband (emptiest time), and we bought ~$1k of mostly canned or dry goods. We were the only customers in line. The cashier seemed interested in our purchases, and I felt myself stiffening as she looked. Then she asked me: “are you worried about that virus?”

And… I found myself reaching for a lie, trying to compose a lie, moving my speech-planning-bits as though the thing to do was to lie. I mean, not a technical lie. But I found myself looking for a way to camouflage or downplay my model of the virus.

Oddly, it felt more like a thing happening in me (“I found myself”) than like a chosen thing. If you’ll pardon the analogy, it somehow felt at least a bit like throwing up, in that I remember once when I was trying not to throw up, and all of a sudden it was like an alien process took over my consciousness and throat, reached for the bucket, got my hair out of the way, and did the actual throwing up. And then returned my body to me when it was over. The “alien process” sensation felt a bit similar.

With the cashier, I wondered at my impulse as it was happening, but I couldn’t tell if the impulse’s source was “for the cashier’s sake” (didn’t seem to make sense); “to prevent her from harming me” (didn’t seem to make sense); or … what exactly?

I forced myself to say “yes” to the cashier’s question, and to elaborate a bit; to my surprise, she seemed sincerely curious, and told me several people had been in doing this and she would probably also prepare in some way. Even after this, my sentences wanted to (sound soothing? fit in? avoid disrupting others’ “normal”? I’m still not sure what), and it took me active effort to partially not do this.

I am somehow quite interested in what precisely was happening there, and in any related processes.

My guesses as to how to help with this puzzle-set, if you’re so inclined:

  • Share observations (not theories) of any related-seeming things you’ve noticed (the rawer the better);

  • Share observations (not theories) of what it’s like to be you right now trying to look at this stuff. Do you have introspective access? Do you have sort of have introspective access, and in what way? Do you kind-of-like identify with it? Kind-of-like not-identify with it?

  • And okay, yes, also theories, I just hope the theory doesn’t overwhelm the observations at this confused stage.