Brain Pickings

How to Befriend the Universe: Philosopher and Comedian Emily Levine on the Art of Meeting Reality on Its Own Terms

From Newton to quantum physics to Hannah Arendt, a mind-bending, heart-opening invitation to welcome nature exactly as it is and ourselves exactly as we are.

“It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” wrote Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant sister — as she modeled how to live fully while dying. “Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote a generation later in contemplating the supreme existential art of befriending our finitude — that ultimate assent to what Emily Dickinson had termed “the drift called ‘the infinite.'”

More than a century after James, Rilke, and Dickinson, a different Emily — the pathbreaking comedian, philosopher, steward of poetry, and my beloved friend Emily Levine — offers a brilliant, funny, bittersweet, largehearted meditation on the existential art of befriending our finitude as she faces her own terminal illness:

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.


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. My source on this is Hannah Arendt — the German philosopher who wrote a book called The Human Condition. 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. So, to me, the mindset that denies this — that denies that we’re in sync with the biorhythms, 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.


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.

Complement with neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s beautiful reflections on the meaning of life as he faces his death, Denise Levertov’s splendid poem about our unreasonable resistance to acknowledging ourselves as part of nature, and Duck, Death and the Tulip — an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on the cycle of life — then revisit physicist and poet Alan Lightman on our longing for permanence in a universe predicated on constant change.

Published May 24, 2018




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