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TED2018

Emily Levine: How I made friends with reality

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With her signature wit and wisdom, Emily Levine meets her ultimate challenge as a comedian/philosopher: she makes dying funny. In this personal talk, she takes us on her journey to make friends with reality -- and peace with death. Life is an enormous gift, Levine says: "You enrich it as best you can, and then you give it back."

- Philosopher-comic
Humorist, writer and trickster Emily Levine riffs on science and the human condition. Full bio

I'm going to first tell you something that
in my grandmother
00:12
would've elicited a five-oy alarm:
00:16
"Oy-oy-oy-oy-oy."
00:19
(Laughter)
00:20
And here it is ...
are you ready?
00:21
OK.
00:25
I have stage IV lung cancer.
00:27
Oh, I know, "poor me."
00:32
I don't feel that way.
00:33
I'm so OK with it.
00:34
And granted, I have certain advantages --
00:37
not everybody can take
so cavalier an attitude.
00:39
I don't have young children.
00:42
I have a grown daughter who's
brilliant and happy and wonderful.
00:44
I don't have huge financial stress.
00:48
My cancer isn't that aggressive.
00:52
It's kind of like
the Democratic leadership --
00:54
(Laughter)
00:56
not convinced it can win.
01:00
It's basically just sitting there,
01:02
waiting for Goldman Sachs
to give it some money.
01:04
(Laughter)
01:06
(Applause)
01:07
Oh, and the best thing of all --
01:12
I have a major accomplishment
under my belt.
01:15
Yes.
01:18
I didn't even know it until someone
tweeted me a year ago.
01:20
And here's what they said:
01:24
"You are responsible
01:26
for the pussification
of the American male."
01:28
(Laughter)
01:32
(Applause)
01:33
Not that I can take
all the credit, but ...
01:37
(Laughter)
01:40
But what if you don't have my advantages?
01:44
The only advice I can give you
is to do what I did:
01:48
make friends with reality.
01:52
You couldn't have a worse relationship
with reality than I did.
01:55
From the get-go,
02:00
I wasn't even attracted to reality.
02:02
If they'd had Tinder when I met reality,
02:05
I would have swiped left
02:08
and the whole thing would have been over.
02:09
(Laughter)
02:11
And reality and I --
02:13
we don't share the same values,
the same goals --
02:15
(Laughter)
02:18
To be honest, I don't have goals;
02:19
I have fantasies.
02:22
They're exactly like goals
but without the hard work.
02:24
(Laughter)
02:28
(Applause)
02:30
I'm not a big fan of hard work,
02:31
but you know reality --
02:34
it's either push, push, push, push, push
02:36
through its agent,
the executive brain function --
02:39
one of the "yays" of dying:
02:44
my executive brain function
won't have me to kick around anymore.
02:45
(Laughter)
02:49
But something happened
02:53
that made me realize
02:56
that reality may not be reality.
03:00
So what happened was,
03:05
because I basically wanted reality
to leave me alone --
03:07
but I wanted to be left alone
in a nice house
03:11
with a Wolf range
and Sub-Zero refrigerator ...
03:14
private yoga lessons --
03:18
I ended up with
a development deal at Disney.
03:20
And one day I found myself
in my new office
03:24
on Two Dopey Drive --
03:28
(Laughter)
03:30
which reality thought
I should be proud of ...
03:33
(Laughter)
03:36
And I'm staring at the present
they sent me to celebrate my arrival --
03:37
not the Lalique vase or the grand piano
I've heard of other people getting,
03:42
but a three-foot-tall,
stuffed Mickey Mouse
03:47
(Laughter)
03:50
with a catalog, in case I wanted
to order some more stuff
03:51
that didn't jive with my aesthetic.
03:54
(Laughter)
03:56
And when I looked up in the catalog
03:57
to see how much
this three-foot-high mouse cost,
03:59
here's how it was described ...
04:03
"Life-sized."
04:07
(Laughter)
04:09
And that's when I knew.
04:14
Reality wasn't "reality."
04:16
Reality was an imposter.
04:19
So I dived into quantum physics
and chaos theory
04:21
to try to find actual reality,
04:26
and I've just finished a movie --
04:28
yes, finally finished --
04:30
about all that,
04:32
so I won't go into it here,
04:33
and anyway, it wasn't until
after we shot the movie,
04:35
when I broke my leg
and then it didn't heal,
04:37
so then they had to do
another surgery a year later,
04:39
and then that took a year --
04:42
two years in a wheelchair,
04:43
and that's when I came
into contact with actual reality:
04:44
limits.
04:50
Those very limits I'd spent
my whole life denying
04:52
and pushing past and ignoring
04:55
were real,
04:59
and I had to deal with them,
05:01
and they took imagination,
creativity and my entire skill set.
05:03
It turned out I was great
at actual reality.
05:09
I didn't just come to terms with it,
05:14
I fell in love.
05:16
And I should've known,
05:17
given my equally shaky
relationship with the zeitgeist ...
05:19
I'll just say, if anyone
is in the market for a Betamax --
05:24
(Laughter)
05:28
I should have known that the moment
I fell in love with reality,
05:30
the rest of the country would decide
to go in the opposite direction.
05:34
(Laughter)
05:37
But I'm not here to talk about Trump
or the alt-right or climate-change deniers
05:40
or even the makers of this thing,
05:44
which I would have called a box,
05:47
except that right here, it says,
05:49
"This is not a box."
05:52
(Laughter)
05:54
They're gaslighting me.
05:59
(Laughter)
06:01
(Applause)
06:03
But what I do want to talk about
06:06
is a personal challenge to reality
06:11
that I take personally,
06:16
and I want to preface it
by saying that I absolutely love science.
06:19
I have this --
06:26
not a scientist myself --
06:27
but an uncanny ability to understand
everything about science,
06:29
except the actual science --
06:34
(Laughter)
06:36
which is math.
06:37
But the most outlandish concepts
make sense to me.
06:38
The string theory;
06:44
the idea that all of reality emanates
from the vibrations of these teeny --
06:46
I call it "The Big Twang."
06:50
(Laughter)
06:52
Wave-particle duality:
06:54
the idea that one thing
can manifest as two things ...
06:56
you know?
07:00
That a photon can manifest
as a wave and a particle
07:01
coincided with my deepest intuitions
07:05
that people are good and bad,
07:07
ideas are right and wrong.
07:09
Freud was right about penis envy
07:11
and he was wrong about who has it.
07:13
(Laughter)
07:16
(Applause)
07:19
Thank you.
07:22
(Applause)
07:23
And then there's this slight
variation on that,
07:24
which is reality looks like two things,
07:28
but it turns out to be the interaction
of those two things,
07:30
like space -- time,
07:34
mass -- energy
07:37
and life and death.
07:38
So I don't I understand --
07:42
I simply just don't understand
07:43
the mindset of people who are out
to "defeat death" and "overcome death."
07:47
How do you do that?
07:51
How do you defeat death
without killing off life?
07:53
It doesn't make sense to me.
07:56
I also have to say,
07:58
I find it incredibly ungrateful.
08:00
I mean, you're given
this extraordinary gift --
08:04
life --
08:07
but it's as if you had asked Santa
for a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow
08:08
and you had gotten
a salad spinner instead.
08:13
You know, it's the beef --
08:16
the beef with it is that it comes
with an expiration date.
08:19
Death is the deal breaker.
08:22
I don't get that.
08:25
I don't understand --
08:27
to me, it's disrespectful.
08:28
It's disrespectful to nature.
08:29
The idea that we're going
to dominate nature,
08:32
we're going to master nature,
08:34
nature is too weak
to withstand our intellect --
08:37
no, I don't think so.
08:41
I think if you've actually read
quantum physics as I have --
08:45
well, I read an email
from someone who'd read it, but --
08:48
(Laughter)
08:51
You have to understand
08:55
that we don't live in Newton's
clockwork universe anymore.
08:56
We live in a banana peel universe,
09:00
and we won't ever be able
to know everything
09:03
or control everything
09:07
or predict everything.
09:09
Nature is like a self-driving car.
09:10
The best we can be is like
the old woman in that joke --
09:12
I don't know if you've heard it.
09:16
An old woman is driving
09:18
with her middle-aged daughter
in the passenger seat,
09:20
and the mother goes
right through a red light.
09:24
And the daughter doesn't want to say
anything that makes it sound like,
09:27
"You're too old to drive,"
09:31
so she didn't say anything.
09:33
And then the mother
goes through a second red light,
09:35
and the daughter,
as tactfully as possible,
09:37
says, "Mom, are you aware
09:40
that you just went through
two red lights?"
09:42
And the mother says, "Oh, am I driving?"
09:44
(Laughter)
09:46
(Applause)
09:50
So ...
09:55
and now, I'm going to take a mental leap,
09:58
which is easy for me because
I'm the Evel Knievel of mental leaps;
10:02
my license plate says,
10:06
"Cogito, ergo zoom."
10:07
I hope you're willing
to come with me on this,
10:11
but my real problem with the mindset
that is so out to defeat death
10:14
is if you're anti-death,
10:20
which to me translates as anti-life,
10:23
which to me translates as anti-nature,
10:26
it also translates to me as anti-woman,
10:30
because women have long been
identified with nature.
10:33
And my source on this is Hannah Arendt,
10:37
the German philosopher who wrote
a book called "The Human Condition."
10:39
And in it, she says that classically,
10:44
work is associated with men.
10:47
Work is what comes out of the head;
10:50
it's what we invent,
10:52
it's what we create,
10:53
it's how we leave our mark upon the world.
10:55
Whereas labor is associated with the body.
10:59
It's associated with the people
who perform labor
11:03
or undergo labor.
11:06
So to me,
11:08
the mindset that denies that,
11:11
that denies that we're in sync
with the biorhythms,
11:15
the cyclical rhythms of the universe,
11:20
does not create a hospitable
environment for women
11:23
or for people associated with labor,
11:28
which is to say,
11:31
people that we associate
as descendants of slaves,
11:32
or people who perform manual labor.
11:36
So here's how it looks
from a banana-peel-universe point of view,
11:39
from my mindset which I call
"Emily's universe."
11:45
First of all,
11:49
I am incredibly grateful for life,
11:52
but I don't want to be immortal.
11:57
I have no interest in having
my name live on after me.
12:00
In fact, I don't want it to,
12:04
because it's been my observation
12:06
that no matter how nice and how brilliant
12:08
or how talented you are,
12:10
50 years after you die, they turn on you.
12:12
(Laughter)
12:15
And I have actual proof of that.
12:16
A headline from the Los Angeles Times:
12:19
"Anne Frank: Not so nice after all."
12:22
(Laughter)
12:25
Plus, I love being in sync
12:30
with the cyclical rhythms of the universe.
12:34
That's what's so extraordinary about life:
12:36
it's a cycle of generation,
12:39
degeneration,
12:41
regeneration.
12:42
"I" am just a collection of particles
12:44
that is arranged into this pattern,
12:48
then will decompose and be available,
12:51
all of its constituent parts, to nature,
12:53
to reorganize into another pattern.
12:56
To me, that is so exciting,
12:59
and it makes me even more grateful
to be part of that process.
13:02
You know,
13:07
I look at death now from the point of view
of a German biologist,
13:09
Andreas Weber,
13:15
who looks at it as part
of the gift economy.
13:16
You're given this enormous gift -- life,
13:20
you enrich it as best you can,
13:23
and then you give it back.
13:25
And, you know, Auntie Mame
said, "Life is a banquet" --
13:28
well, I've eaten my fill.
13:31
I have had an enormous appetite for life,
13:34
I've consumed life,
13:36
but in death, I'm going to be consumed.
13:37
I'm going into the ground
just the way I am,
13:40
and there, I invite every microbe
13:43
and detritus-er
13:46
and decomposer
13:48
to have their fill --
13:50
I think they'll find me delicious.
13:51
(Laughter)
13:54
I do.
13:55
So the best thing about my attitude,
I think, is that it's real.
13:57
You can see it.
14:02
You can observe it.
14:03
It actually happens.
14:05
Well, maybe not my enriching the gift,
14:06
I don't know about that --
14:10
but my life has certainly
been enriched by other people.
14:12
By TED,
14:15
which introduced me
to a whole network of people
14:17
who have enriched my life,
14:20
including Tricia McGillis,
my website designer,
14:22
who's working with my wonderful daughter
14:26
to take my website
and turn it into something
14:28
where all I have to do is write a blog.
14:32
I don't have to use
the executive brain function ...
14:33
Ha, ha, ha, I win!
14:36
(Laughter)
14:40
And I am so grateful to you.
14:41
I don't want to say, "the audience,"
14:44
because I don't really see it
as we're two separate things.
14:47
I think of it in terms
of quantum physics, again.
14:51
And, you know, quantum physicists
are not exactly sure what happens
14:58
when the wave becomes a particle.
15:03
There are different theories --
15:05
the collapse of the wave function,
15:07
decoherence --
15:09
but they're all agreed on one thing:
15:10
that reality comes into being
through an interaction.
15:12
(Voice breaking) So do you.
15:18
And every audience I've ever had,
15:20
past and present.
15:22
Thank you so much for making my life real.
15:25
(Applause)
15:29
Thank you.
15:30
(Applause)
15:31
Thank you.
15:33
(Applause)
15:34
Thank you.
15:35
(Applause)
15:36
Thank you.
15:37

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About the speaker:

Emily Levine - Philosopher-comic
Humorist, writer and trickster Emily Levine riffs on science and the human condition.

Why you should listen

Humorist Emily Levine works a heady vein of humor, cerebral and thoughtful as well as hilarious. Oh, she's got plenty of jokes. But her work, at its core, makes serious connections -- between hard science and pop culture, between what we say and what we secretly assume ... She plumbs the hidden oppositions, the untouchable not-quite-truths of the modern mind.

Levine's background in improv theater, with its requirement to always say "yes" to the other actor's reality, has helped shape her worldview. Always suspicious of sharp either/or distinctions, she proposes "the quantum logic of and/and" -- a thoroughly postmodern, scientifically informed take on life that allows for complicated states of being. Like the one we're in right now.

For more on Levine's thoughts about life and death, read her blog, "The Yoy of Dying," at EmilysUniverse.com, along with updates on "Emily @ the Edge of Chaos" and pronouncements from Oracle Em.

More profile about the speaker
Emily Levine | Speaker | TED.com