DENTON The evening with Rainn Wilson began with a nod to the delightfully odd Dwight Schrute, the character on NBC’s The Office that made him famous. Kicking off his lecture at the University of North Texas, Wilson recalled meeting with students beforehand, all of them together probing life’s big questions. “And what we arrived on,” he said, “is … black bear is best.”
The Office loving audience roared with laughter.
Though hints of Dwight peppered his talk on Thursday night (pity the photographer in the wool cap who left halfway through), Wilson was really there to talk about spirituality and humanity – themes he explores with SoulPancake, the website and media company he co-founded.
The enterprise – which also spawned a New York Times best-selling book: SoulPancake: Chew on Life’s Big Questions – was also a launching pad for a very popular YouTube channel, which hosts web series such as Kid President, Joy Bomb, My Last Days and Metaphysical Milkshake, a show that has Wilson talking spirituality with friends and celebs in his van (or as Office co-star Mindy Kaling called it in one episode “your weird Scooby-Doo van.”)
If you were ever curious about Wilson’s path from fictional beet farmer to metaphysical milkshake maker, the path was laid out Thursday in a thoughtful, offbeat and inspirational narrative.
He talked about being raised in the Baha’i faith, whose followers believe in just one god for all of humanity, no matter which religion they practice. “There were so many beautiful, progressive teachings that were instilled in me as a child,” he said. (The equality of men and women, the need to eliminate prejudice and the disparity between the haves and have-nots, to name a few.)
There was a period (let’s call it “college”) when he abandoned his faith and became immersed in acting. “I moved to New York City, died my hair black, and started smoking unfiltered cigarettes. I looked like a psycho killer.”
But at the same time his acting dreams were finally being realized, he found himself deeply unhappy, and couldn’t understand why. It took him a while, but he eventually found his way back to his faith, where he started mining Life’s Big Questions, such as: What is happiness?
“Happiness is a terrible word,” he said to a rapt audience at the UNT Coliseum. “Contentment is really what we’re talking about. That deep kind of joy that resonates inside of you – it’s never attached to external events. … The more we turn our attention to our selves, and our self needs, the less content we are. ‘I want a good job, and I want to buy that thing, and I want these people to like me,’ me-me-me – which is a very cultural thing happening right now, you’re just never satisfied, it’s never enough.
“It’s this weird dichotomy of human nature,” Wilson said. “But the more we’re out there, teaching and sharing, uplifting and training and singing and dancing and moving and being of service and working with the poor and fighting for social justice – that’s when you find yourself really, truly inspired and uplifted. … Happiness is a choice that you make on a daily basis – to be happy and filled with gratitude. It’s really that simple.”
Wilson clearly didn’t want to come off as a sermonizer; he explained that the shows on SoulPancake might plumb deep subjects, but they want to do it in an entertaining, sometimes irreverent way. “We wanted to de-lame-ify spirituality,” he said of the origins of SoulPancake. “Because you talk to someone about spirituality, and they just roll their eyes and go: ‘Oh God, he’s gonna try to convert me.’
And why is that, Wilson wondered aloud. “Spirituality doesn’t need to be hippy-dippy new-agey frou-frou, and it doesn’t need to be dogmatic, fundamentalist … it’s really a conversation about the human experience.”
He encouraged his audience to keep asking the big questions: Does my life have a purpose? What happens to me when I die? Is there a God? Have I explored the truth for myself, or have I just inherited it from my family or the culture around me?
“We live in a world that wants you to numb out,” Wilson said. “To be cynical, jaded, to not care, to not fight for justice, to not fight for care of the poor. A culture that wants you to get stoned and watch video games and do shots and chill out, buy things and just coast through and numb out.
“I encourage you all to dig into [the big questions] as a way to break out of that,” he said, “because that is not your destiny – to numb out.”