Following is the full transcript of Humorist and trickster Emily Levine’s TED Talk: How I Made Friends With Reality.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: How I made friends with reality by Emily Levine at TED Talk
I’m going to first tell you something that in my grandmother would’ve elicited a five-oy alarm: “Oy-oy-oy-oy-oy”. And here it is. Are you ready? OK.
I have stage IV lung cancer. Oh, I know, “poor me.” I don’t feel that way. I’m so OK 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 have swiped left and the whole thing would have 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 — 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. So what 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 Two 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 imposter. 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 wasn’t 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, creativity and my entire skill set. 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 is in the market for a Betamax — I should have 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 have called a box, except that right here, it says, “This is not a box.” 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 — 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. The string theory: the idea that all of reality emanates from the vibrations of 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’s this 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. So 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 had gotten a salad spinner instead. You know, it’s the beef — the 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 to 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 have — 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 didn’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?”
So… and now, I’m 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 create, it’s how we leave our mark upon the world. Whereas labor is associated with the body. It’s associated with the people who perform labor or undergo labor.