How I Made Friends With Reality

April 13, 2018

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.


I am going to first tell you something that, in my grandmother, would have elicited a five-oy alarm—“Oy, oy, oy, oy, oy!” And here it is. Are you ready? Okay. I have stage four lung cancer. Oh, I know: “Poor me!”—I don’t feel that way. I’m so okay with it. And granted, I have certain advantages. Not everybody can take so cavalier an attitude. I don’t have young children. I have a grown daughter who’s brilliant and happy and wonderful. I don’t have huge financial stress. My cancer isn’t that aggressive. It’s kind of like the Democratic leadership: not convinced it can win. It’s basically just sitting there, waiting for Goldman Sachs to give it some money!


Oh! And the best thing of all: I have a major accomplishment under my belt. Yes! I didn’t even know it until someone tweeted me a year ago. And here’s what they said: “You are responsible for the pussification of the American male!” Not that I can take all the credit, but…!


But what if you don’t have my advantages? The only advice I can give you is to do what I did: make friends with reality. You couldn’t have a worse relationship with reality than I did. From the get go I wasn’t even attracted to reality. If they’d had Tinder when I met reality, I would’ve swiped left and the whole thing would’ve been over. And reality and I—we don’t share the same values, the same goals. To be honest: I don’t have goals, I have fantasies. They’re exactly like goals, but without the hard work.


I’m not a big fan of hard work. But… you know reality! It’s either push, push, push, push, push through its agent, the executive brain function—which, one of the yays of dying: my executive brain function won’t have me to kick around anymore! But something happened that made me realize that reality may not be reality.


What had happened was: because I basically wanted reality to leave me alone, but I wanted to be left alone in a nice house, with a Wolf range, and sub-zero refrigerator, private yoga lessons. I ended up with a development deal at Disney. And one day I found myself in my new office (on 2 Dopey Drive… which reality thought I should be proud of!), and I’m staring at the present they sent me to celebrate my arrival. Not the Lalique vase or the grand piano I’ve heard of other people getting, but a three foot tall stuffed Mickey Mouse—with a catalog, in case I wanted to order some more stuff that didn’t jive with my aesthetic. And when I looked up in the catalog to see how much this three foot high mouse cost, here’s how it was described. “Life-sized!” And that’s when I knew: reality wasn’t reality, reality was an impostor.


So I dived into quantum physics and chaos theory to try to find actual reality. And I’ve just finished a movie—yes, finally finished!—about all that, so I won’t go into it here. And anyway, it was until after we shot the movie when I broke my leg, and then it didn’t heal. So then they had to do another surgery a year later. And then that took a year. Two years in a wheelchair. And that’s when I came into contact with actual reality. Limits! Those very limits I’d spent my whole life denying and pushing past and ignoring… were real, and I had to deal with them. And they took imagination and creativity and my entire skillset!


It turned out: I was great at actual reality! I didn’t just come to terms with it, I fell in love! And I should’ve known, given my equally shaky relationship with the Zeitgeist. I’ll just say, if anyone’s in the market for a Betamax…! I should’ve known that the moment I fell in love with reality, the rest of the country would decide to go in the opposite direction. But I’m not here to talk about Trump, or the Alt Right, or climate change deniers, or even the makers of this thing—which I would’ve called a box, except that right here it says, “this is not a box.” Uh… they’re gaslighting me!


But what I do want to talk about is a personal challenge to reality that I take personally. And I want to preface it by saying that I absolutely love science. I have this (I’m not a scientist myself), but an uncanny ability to understand everything about science—except the actual science, which is math. But the most outlandish concepts make sense to me. Uhh… string theory: the idea that all of reality emanates from the vibrations from these teeny… I call it the “big twang.” Wave-particle duality: the idea that one thing can manifest as two things. You know? That a photon can manifest as a wave and a particle coincided with my deepest intuitions that people are good and bad, ideas are right and wrong, Freud was right about penis envy and he was wrong about who has it. Thank you!


And then there is even a slight variation on that, which is: reality looks like two things, but it turns out to be the interaction of those two things. Like space/time, mass/energy, and life and death. I don’t understand—I simply just don’t understand—the mindset of people who are out to defeat death and overcome death. How do you do that? How do you defeat death without killing off life? It doesn’t make sense to me.


I also have to say: I find it incredibly ungrateful. I mean, you’re given this extraordinary gift—life—but it’s as if you had asked Santa for a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and you’ve gotten a salad spinner instead. You know, the big beef with it is that it comes with an expiration date. Death is the deal breaker. I don’t get that. I don’t understand. To me it’s disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to nature. The idea that we’re going dominate nature, we’re going to master nature, nature is too weak to withstand our intellect.


No. I don’t think so. I think if you’ve actually read quantum physics, as I hav—well, I read an email from someone who’d read it, but…. You have to understand that we don’t live in Newton’s clockwork universe anymore, we live in a banana peel universe. And we won’t ever be able to know everything or control everything or predict everything. Nature is like a self-driving car. The best we can be is like the old woman in that joke—I don’t know if you’ve heard it. An old woman is driving with her middle-aged daughter in the passenger seat. And the mother goes right through a red light. And the daughter doesn’t want to say anything that makes it sound like “you’re too old to drive,” so she doesn’t say anything. And then the mother goes through a second red light. And the daughter, as tactfully as possible, says, “Mom, are you aware that you just went through two red lights?” And the mother says, “Oh, am I driving?”


And now I am going to take a mental leap—which is easy for me, because I’m the Evel Knievel of mental leaps. My license plate says “Cogito, ergo ZOOM.” I hope you’re willing to come with me on this. But my real problem with the mindset that is so out to defeat death is: if you’re anti-death (which to me translates as anti-life, which to me translates as anti-nature), it also translates to me as anti-woman, because women have long been identified with nature. And my source on this is Hannah Arendt, the German philosopher who wrote a book called The Human Condition. And in it she says that, classically, work is associated with men. Work is what comes out of the head. It’s what we invent, it’s what we created, it’s how we leave our mark upon the world. Whereas laborer is associated with the body, it’s associated with people who perform labor or undergo labor.


So to me, the mindset that denies that, that denies that we’re in sync with the bio-rhythms, the cyclical rhythms, of the universe does not create a hospitable environment for women or for people associated with labor, which is to say: people that we associate as descendants of slaves or people who perform manual labor.


So here’s how it looks from a banana peel universe point of view; from my mindset, which I call Emily’s universe. First of all, I am incredibly grateful for life, but I don’t want to be immortal. I have no interest in having my name live on after me. In fact, I don’t want it to. Because it’s been my observation that, no matter how nice and how brilliant or how talented you are, fifty years after you die they turn on you. Yeah. And I have actual proof of that. A headline from the Los Angeles Times: “Anne Frank: Not so nice after all.”


Plus, I love being in sync with the cyclical rhythms of the universe. That’s what’s so extraordinary about life: it’s a cycle of generation, degeneration, regeneration. “I” am just a collection of particles that is arranged into this pattern, then will decompose, and be available (all of its constituent parts) to nature to reorganize into another pattern. To me, that is so exciting. And it makes me even more grateful to be part of that process.


You know, I look at death now from the point of view of a German biologist, Andreas Weber, who looks at it as part of the gift economy. You’re given this enormous gift, life, you enrich it as best you can, and then you give it back. And, you know, Auntie Mame said, “life is a banquet.” Well, I’ve eaten my fill. I have had an enormous appetite for life. I’ve consumed life. But in death, I’m going to be consumed. I’m going into the ground just the way I am, and there I invite every microbe and detrituser and composer to have their fill. I think they’ll find me delicious! I do!


So the best thing about my attitude, I think, is that it’s real. You can see it. You can observe it. It actually happens. It’s not a—well, maybe not my enriching the gift. I don’t know about that. But my life has certainly been enriched by other people. By TED, which introduced me to a whole network of people who have enriched my life. By including Trisha McGillis, my website designer, who’s working with my wonderful daughter to take my website and turn it into something where all I have to do is write a blog, I don’t have to use the executive brain function. Ha, ha, ha! I win!


And I am so grateful to you. I don’t want to say “the audience,” because I don’t really see it as we’re two separate things. I think of it in terms of quantum physics again. And, you know, quantum physicists, you’re not exactly sure what happens when the wave becomes a particle. There are different theories: the collapse of the wave function, decoherence. But they’re all agreed on one thing: that reality comes into being through an interaction. So do you. And every audience I’ve ever had, past and present. Thank you so much for making my life real! Thank you!

Emily Levine

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