What does It all mean?: Emily Levine at TEDxDanubia 2014

What does It all mean?: Emily Levine at TEDxDanubia 2014


Translator: Eszter Cselényi
Reviewer: Denise RQ I’m doing something
I’ve never done before, I am showing a slide. (Laughter) So this is the sign I saw
in the hotel dining room. I couldn’t figure out what it meant, so I asked the maitre d’, and he said:
“It shows you where the exit is.” I said, “But why is the man running?” (Laughter) And he said: “Well,
you know, we live in an age where the pace of everything
has accelerated.” (Laughter) And he said, “Probably 50 years ago…”
(Imitates slow walking) (Laughter) I thought it was so extraordinary
that the maitre d’ understood what so many people here today
have been talking about. How the pace of change has accelerated. I speak as someone
to whom it actually happened. I want to say that while we talk about change
and how wonderful change is, it’s different when you make change, then when change happens to you. A lot of the fear of change
had taken the world today. Change is happening to us
in ways we don’t understand. What happened to me
was that over a period of time I changed in ways I couldn’t understand. First, I started to lose my mental quickness and my memory. I started to become
like the man in a joke I heard about two couples who take
a power walk together every day. The women were walking in front,
the men were walking in the back, and one man said to the other: “We ate at the most fabulous
restaurant the other night.” The other man says,
“What was the name of it?” And the first man says:
“Oh, I can’t remember. What’s the name of that flower that everybody loves, that red flower?” The other man says,
“I don’t know, a tulip?” “No, no, no.
You know, that red flower -” “A puppy?” “Nooo! The flower! You know, the flower
you give your wife on Valentine’s Day.” And the man says, “A rose?” He says: “That’s it! Rose, what’s the name
of the restaurant we ate at last night?” (Laughter) That’s what it’s becoming. So first that. Then, I got breast cancer. I don’t know if anybody
here has ever had cancer, but I think in any language, those are the two scariest words
you’ll ever hear, “It’s cancer.” Well, not as scary as,
“Everybody sing!” but almost. OK, then, that was that. Then I got this sudden onset
of arthritis, and I couldn’t walk, and my dog was completely unsympathetic. This dog’s supposed to be smart, you know,
he is an Australian Shepherd. No, no; he can’t even remember
he just had a walk 15 minutes ago. He is already lobbying for an other one. Finally, I said to him: “You know,
it’s a good thing you’re a dog, and not in a profession
where you have to sit still and think like a philosopher. And he said: “Oh, really?
And what about Kierkegaard, taking his walk every day
under the elms of Unter den Linden?” I’m looking at him and saying:
“It’s not Kierkegaard who took a walk. It was Kant! Immanuel Kant!”
Stupid dog, you know. (Laughter) And meanwhile, the cats going
like this, you know. That was my worst fear
that I was going crazy, but then the worst thing happened:
my feet grew three full sizes. From a size seven to a size ten. But finally, it was the clue to the doctor
who finally diagnosed me. And it turns out I had a tumor
in my pituitary gland that was making me produce
too much human growth hormone. The whole of everything – What I was talking about?
What’s happening to me? – over-productivity, over-growth,
over-everything. It turns out
that the name of this disease, Acromegaly, literally means
big hands, big feet, big head. But the weird thing was, as my head
was getting bigger, so were my ideas. (Laughter) I suddenly started to have
these big ideas (Laughter) and the weird thing was,
they were about science. I never knew anything about science (Laughter) because I didn’t have the thing
you’re supposed to have to understand it. I didn’t have maths; not because I think
women are bed at maths. Actually, I think little girls
are born with a faculty to understand those abstracts concepts, but then they give you Snow White
and the Seven Dwarfs to read. I’m sure Annamary Kádár would have a beautiful interpretation
of this fairy tale, but to me it only meant one thing, there’re two kinds of men in the world:
dwarfs and Prince Charmings. (Laughter) And the odds of my finding
a prince were seven to one. (Laughter) That’s why little girls don’t do maths. (Applause) Thank you. It’s too depressing. But I understood somehow
the big ideas of maths, and I understood that those big ideas,
the physics of cosmology, the physics that describe
our Universe and our metaphysics, how we understand ourselves
to fit into the universe, we’re interconnected. And that the problem we’re facing today
is that the most fundamental change of all is that our physics have changed
but our metaphysics haven’t caught up. That’s why everyone is
so fixated on cosmetology. How you look, cosmetic surgery,
how to make you [look good] because when you don’t know
what the universe looks like, you start to worry about
what you look like. (Laughter) So what happened to me is I saw that by going
from the Newtonian physics – the physics that describes
the Age of Certainty – to quantum physics and chaos theory, we have ways
of challenging those old ideas that could be exciting and not so fearful. If we develop the skills
to deal with them. For instance, Newton used
the logic called ‘either/or.’ You know, Armiani talked about how he couldn’t decide
between being a physicist or an artist, between his head and his heart. That’s because we’re brought up in a way
we think there’re only two of anything, and that you have to choose
one or the other: either you’re rich or you’re poor, either you’re white or you’re black, either you’re Buda or Pest. (Laughter) But to me, it means
that you’re always in a war. If there’s only two of anything
and only one can be right, and the other must be wrong,
there’s no middle. It cuts that line in ‘either/or, ‘
It’s either-slash-or. You know, if you wonder
why there is no middle class? Because we’re caught up in this thinking: there can only be one or the other. When I was at the height
of the Acromegaly, I just couldn’t stand
the noise of war anymore. I don’t know, the television,
the radio, even the Internet, Coke versus Pepsi, nature versus nurture,
everything was a war. Then, I read a book on physics. Well, I read an email from someone
who had read a book on physics (Laughter) and I found out about
wave-particle duality because for years,
physicists had been ‘either/or.’ Like the nature of light,
it was either a wave or a particle. Then they discovered that no, that light can manifest
as a wave and a particle, and particles can be here and there. And cats can be alive and dead. (Laughter) I mean you can imagine
the physicist’s reaction: oy and vey! It was so scary,
and yet, they made the leap. I found that when I could make that leap and find the balance, allow two apparently,
contradictory things to coexist, and not try to resolve them
one way or the other, but to negotiate
the tension between them. You know, in all the things
we’ve talked about here, between research and development,
between the head and the heart, it’s such a better way to live. This logic of ‘either/or, ‘ I noticed, underlies all these other ideas
we have, like objectivity. This Newtonian physics believes
there is an objective reality, and that by using objective measurements, experimenters can design an experiment
upon which they impact in no way. So, if you, as I was, in doctor’s offices
a lot during this time, you know those objective measurements: they take your blood,
they count your blood count, they count your blood pressure; but it’s happening to me. There is an active doctor
and a passive patient. Patient actually comes from
the Latin ‘patienta’ which means ‘she who suffers, ‘
‘she who has things happen to her, ‘ and it was so disorienting to me,
I had always been an active person. It was so disorienting
to suddenly be in this passive state that I went to a psychiatrist. I said: “I just want me back.
I want the me I used to be.” And he said, “There is no such you.” I have to say, this was
an incredibly smart psychiatrist, I had done research. A friend of mine who knows
every psychiatrist in the country… he had once gone to him
and then he’d discovered another friend, another screenwriter,
who was going to the same psychiatrist. So they said, they came up with
a scheme, they came up with a dream that had every symbol
known to Freud and Jung. On Monday, Bob went in
and told the psychiatrist the dream. On Thursday, this other guy went in and told the psychiatrist
the exact same dream, and the psychiatrist was saying: “This is so weird,
you’re the third person this week.” (Laughter) It was…! Anyway. The psychiatrist said,
“There is no solipsistic you. You are the sum of all your interactions. That was how I came to understand
the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty. Do you know what the Heisenberg
Principle of Uncertainty is? Are you sure? (Laughter) The Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty
in one way, in one interpretation, if light can be a wave and a particle,
when is it which? The answer is: it depends on
what you’re looking at it with. If you’re looking at it with an instrument
that measures waves, it’s a wave. If you’re looking at it with an instrument
that measures particles, it’s a particle. So the point is, the experimenter
does impact on the experiment. We are all always impacting
and being impacted on by each other which means that all the talk
that people have done in this day, about collaboration,
about interaction, about teamwork, comes out of this notion, that instead of these separate boxes
that we all inhabit, or the separate specialties
that make it impossible, – that made it impossible
for the doctors to diagnose me because each was, you know, if an orthopedist was looking at me
with an X-ray, he saw arthritis, if somebody else was looking at me
with a blood test, he saw something else. So now we understand that things
are interconnected and in patterns. The other thing I just want
to say about this interaction, I was so glad when Peter said
that we interact within ourselves, because one of the worst things
that happened during this period was I split into two people:
I split into the rational head, because, of course, rationality
is the key note of Newton’s universe. The idea that we can measure everything,
therefore we can know everything, and therefore we can predict everything,
and therefore we can control everything. So I split into the rational head
which was trying to control what it saw as the irrational body. So the head would say:
“Alright, we’re driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles tomorrow
to have meeting with so and so.” And my body would say:
“I don’t think so. I am too tired.” Then the head would say:
“Well, how could you be tired?” Because the head’s very reasonable: “You’ve just slept 12 hours
you have no reason to be tired.” Then the body would say:
“I know, but I am tired.” And the head, I actually heard
myself say to myself one day, “You know, if I were you…” (Laughter) I realized that it was crazy. It was the head that was irrational. It was the idea, that we can control
everything, that’s irrational. With all the wonderful talks
about bioengineering, you know, I am ambivalent about it,
which we all should be. You know, there is the ‘oh!’ of all the incredible discoveries
that are being made and there is the ‘Oy!’ of all the danger that is lurking inside the idea
that we can control nature. Because we’ve really gone
from Newton’s clockwork universe, where everything goes according to plan, to a banana peel universe, where there is always a banana peel
under your foot waiting for you to fall. The best example of this to me, who we all are in this universe, is like the elderly woman in a joke, who is driving along
with her middle-aged daughter, and she goes through a red light. The daughter says: “Mum, uh…”
then she decides [to say nothing] because anything she would have said was going to sound like,
“You’re too old to drive.” But then the mother
goes through an other red light, and this time the daughter says: “Mum, are you aware that you just
went through two red lights?” And the mother says: “Oh, am I driving?” (Laughter) I will just say, in closing, I wish I were
here in July, at Peter Pozsár’s festival, the Hello Wood festival,
because it’s on balance, and I think that’s the skill
we all need to learn more than anything. How to balance the tension.
How to find our way. If you can find that dynamic balance,
it could take us to a place that chaos theorists call
the edge of chaos. It’s smacked in the middle
that ‘either/or’ denies. It’s smacked in the middle
between order and disorder, and in that middle, they say, is the most creative, innovative,
exciting place you can be. When you’re actually in that middle, with all the diversity,
and all the change, and all the scariness,
and all the friction; when the friction is at its height, and the system is excited enough, the whole system becomes not ‘either/or, ‘ but ‘one & the other’. And at that point,
the system literally glows. So, I hope, in closing,
we have that sense of incandescence because it’s possible,
always for us to create it, for us to share it, and for us to be interactive
with each other. Thank you so much. (Applause)

7 Replies to “What does It all mean?: Emily Levine at TEDxDanubia 2014”

  1. I still have no idea what it all means, but she was fun to listen to.  That counts for something, doesn't it?

  2. Honestly, this video and the other related speeches by Emily Levine, should probably be titled: "Reality is in the grey area: everything exists as an interaction between two or more things."

  3. In my salad days (decades ago) I worked at the Improv here in NYC, and remember Emily very well. Her hair was dark, no grey…. at the time. Though she already had that comedic, 'whatever happens is fine' attitude onstage, and the NYC Stickball Team was far richer for having had her as a member. I myself survived in 2012 two catastrophic dreadful arson fires, and thought then my life was over. My reputation destroyed. Income, and public trust lost. Health issues, contemplating suicide – the works. But, those events THAT HAPPENED TO ME…completely turned my life around. Were it not for those fires, I would not be where I am today: stronger, richer, happier, far more creative..makes you wonder, eh?

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