Elizabeth Lesser – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
Like many of us, I’ve had several careers in my life, and although they’ve been varied, my first job set the foundation for all of them.
I was a home-birth midwife throughout my 20s. Delivering babies taught me valuable and sometimes surprising things, like how to start a car at 2 a.m. when it’s 10 degrees below zero.
Or how to revive a father who’s fainted at the sight of blood. Or how to cut the umbilical cord just so, to make a beautiful belly button.
But those aren’t the things that stuck with me or guided me when I stopped being a midwife and started other jobs. What stuck with me was this bedrock belief that each one of us comes into this world with a unique worth.
When I looked into the face of a newborn, I caught a glimpse of that worthiness, that sense of unapologetic selfhood, that unique spark. I use the word “soul” to describe that spark, because it’s the only word in English that comes close to naming what each baby brought into the room.
Every newborn was as singular as a snowflake, a matchless mash-up of biology and ancestry and mystery.
And then that baby grows up, and in order to fit into the family, to conform to the culture, to the community, to the gender, that little one begins to cover its soul, layer by layer.
We’re born this way, but —
But as we grow, a lot of things happen to us that make us want to hide our soulful eccentricities and authenticity. We’ve all done this. Everyone in this room is a former baby with a distinctive birthright.
But as adults, we spend so much of our time uncomfortable in our own skin, like we have ADD: authenticity deficit disorder. But not those babies — not yet.
Their message to me was: uncover your soul and look for that soul-spark in everyone else. It’s still there.
And here’s what I learned from laboring women. Their message was about staying open, even when things are painful. A woman’s cervix normally looks like this. It’s a tight little muscle at the base of the uterus. And during labor, it has to stretch from this to this. Ouch!
If you fight against that pain, you just create more pain, and you block what wants to be born. I’ll never forget the magic that would happen when a woman stopped resisting the pain and opened.
It was as if the forces of the universe took notice and sent in a wave of help. I never forgot that message, and now, when difficult or painful things happen to me in my life or my work, of course at first I resist them, but then I remember what I learned from the mothers: stay open. Stay curious.
Ask the pain what it’s come to deliver. Something new wants to be born. And there was one more big soulful lesson, and that one I learned from Albert Einstein. He wasn’t at any of the births, but —
It was a lesson about time. At the end of his life, Albert Einstein concluded that our normal, hamster-wheel experience of life is an illusion. We run round and round, faster and faster, trying to get somewhere.
And all the while, underneath surface time is this whole other dimension where the past and the present and the future merge and become deep time. And there’s nowhere to get to. Albert Einstein called this state, this dimension, “only being.”
And he said when he experienced it, he knew sacred awe. When I was delivering babies, I was forced off the hamster wheel. Sometimes I had to sit for days, hours and hours, just breathing with the parents; just being. And I got a big dose of sacred awe.
So those are the three lessons I took with me from midwifery.
One: uncover your soul.
Two: when things get difficult or painful, try to stay open.
And three: every now and then, step off your hamster wheel into deep time.
Those lessons have served me throughout my life, but they really served me recently, when I took on the most important job of my life thus far.
Two years ago, my younger sister came out of remission from a rare blood cancer, and the only treatment left for her was a bone marrow transplant. And against the odds, we found a match for her, who turned out to be me.
I come from a family of four girls, and when my sisters found out that I was my sister’s perfect genetic match, their reaction was, “Really? You? A perfect match for her?” Which is pretty typical for siblings.
In siblinghood, that’s where we start assembling many of those first layers that cover our soul.
When I discovered I was my sister’s match, I went into research mode. And I discovered that the premise of transplants is pretty straightforward. You destroy all the bone marrow in the cancer patient with massive doses of chemotherapy, and then you replace that marrow with several million healthy marrow cells from a donor.