Emily Levine: How Do We Make Peace With Death When It's Imminent? Writer Emily Levine has stage IV lung cancer. But instead of fearing the inevitable, she decided to embrace her new reality, and face death with humor and gratitude for a life well-lived.

Emily Levine: How Do We Make Peace With Death When It's Imminent?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/645343244/645524310" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas around how we engage with death.

So first of all, Emily, can you introduce yourself, please?

EMILY LEVINE: My name is Emily Levine. I am 73 years old and dying, supposedly. It's taking longer than they said it would, which is obviously very good and, alternately, not so good.

RAZ: When you were diagnosed, what was the prognosis?

LEVINE: Well, it took a long time to determine what kind of cancer it was. And I asked the oncologist about the prognosis, and he said if it's lung cancer, a year, and if it's breast cancer, at least two years. I said, well, a year is enough. I thought, well, I'll just read books that I read when I was a child that I loved, like "The Once And Future King," "Alice In Wonderland," and see friends. So I did that for a while. But, you know, I didn't die. And I continued not to die. I haven't been losing weight. For the first time in my life, I get on the scale praying that I haven't lost any weight. So I'm still counting calories. That part's the same, but the hope for the outcome is different.

RAZ: Now, Emily spent most of her life writing and performing comedy. She calls herself a philosopher comedian. So naturally, she decided she would engage with death using humor. Here's Emily Levine on the TED stage.


LEVINE: I have Stage 4 lung cancer and 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 don't have huge financial stress. My cancer isn't that aggressive. It's kind of like the Democratic leadership.


LEVINE: Not convinced it can win. It's basically just sitting there, waiting for Goldman Sachs to give it some money.


LEVINE: 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.


LEVINE: And reality and I - I didn't just come to terms with it. I fell in love. 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.


LEVINE: 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 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. 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. A woman - 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?


RAZ: We humans seem to be obsessed with legacy and memory. I mean, we memorialize everybody who goes - right? - in gravestones and in foundations, on park benches. We want to be remembered, right? And does that make sense to you, that instinct?


RAZ: No? It doesn't.

LEVINE: No. I just read that Florence Nightingale refused to be photographed until Queen Victoria insisted upon it because Florence Nightingale said - and I quote - "I wish to be forgotten." That makes more sense to me.

RAZ: Why?

LEVINE: You're going to live on in the memories of your loved ones until there's no one alive to remember you, and then you're done. You're going to be forgotten at some point, whether it's five years from now or 50 years from now or 100 years from now, 500 years from now. You're going to be forgotten at some point. Get over it.

RAZ: Do you - are you like Florence Nightingale? Do you not want to be remembered?

LEVINE: I'm ambivalent about it, I mean, aside from my daughter and my sisters and nieces, et cetera, and my friends. But on the other hand, I care about what I had to say. I think it's important. So I guess I do want that remembered in some way. The thing for me is there's nothing that gives me more pleasure than when someone else takes an idea of mine and makes it his or her own. I want the ideas to have a life and be remembered. I don't care if it's me.


LEVINE: 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 (laughter), 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 of 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 invite every microbe and detrituser (ph) and decomposer to have their fill. I think they'll find me delicious.


LEVINE: I do. So the best thing about my attitude, I think, is that it's real. My life has certainly been enriched by other people. Reality comes into being through an interaction. Thank you so much for making my life real. Thank you.


RAZ: Do you feel like you've done everything you wanted to do?

LEVINE: No, probably. Does anyone?

RAZ: Yeah. Good point.

LEVINE: But it doesn't disturb me. You know, when the doctor first said it's cancer, my first thought was, oh, I've had a wonderful life. And then I thought, my mother died of cancer when she was 55. And nobody suspected that it was cancer. They performed surgery and opened up her abdomen thinking there was some kind of blockage and found ovarian cancer. And when she woke up from the anaesthetic, my father told her. And she said, oh, I've had a wonderful life. And I remember over the years, I've wondered whether that was an authentic response or whether she was just trying to make my father feel better 'cause my father was devastated. So in that moment, I realized, no, it was an authentic response 'cause it's the response I had. And my second thought was, I have explored as much as I'm going to be able to explore in this lifetime. And I enjoyed exploring it, and now I'll explore death. And my imagination has always been my best friend.


LEVINE: Here was a challenge worthy of my imagination. I thought of it as a creative challenge. That everybody dies in a different way, and how was I going to do it?

RAZ: That's Emily Levine. She's a comedian and a writer. You can see her entire talk at ted.com.


Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.