(RNS) — Over the past year or so, I’ve developed a friendship with someone that I never would have expected: Dwight Schrute of “The Office.”
Well, it’s technically not Dwight, but the actor who plays him — Rainn Wilson — which is good because Dwight would hate me for all the same reasons he hates Jim.
I was introduced to Rainn through our mutual friend Reza Aslan when the three of us met for lunch in Los Angeles last summer. I’ll admit that it was a bit intimidating. What would I say to one of the main actors from one of the most successful TV comedies of all time?
Reza’s no slouch either. His resume is longer than a CVS receipt, and he’s been so effective in doing what I’m so passionate about: bringing smart, meaningful conversations about religion and spirituality into American culture.
The two of them host a podcast together — “Metaphysical Milkshake” — and a part of me hoped that they’d just banter as they do hilariously and intelligently on the pod and not notice how uncool I was in comparison to them. God must have not heard that prayer. As soon as we sat down, Rainn began asking about my life, my family and what I was working on.
In turn, Rainn explained that he was writing a book on why we need a spiritual revolution. Pretty soon, we were diving into some deep territory, including life’s biggest questions, such as how we find happiness and how we foster peace. I realize how cliche this sounds, but it really was one of the most engaging and delightful conversations I can remember.
The most memorable moment came after we’d finished our meal. We had all parked in a garage below the restaurant, and Rainn collected our tickets to get them validated for a $5 discount on parking. After a few minutes, he came back from the counter and explained that through some technical glitch only one of the tickets was validated. He insisted on giving it to me. “You’re our guest,” he said. “We’ll figure ours out.”
I knew $5 wasn’t going to break Rainn’s bank account (as he knew it wouldn’t make mine), but the humility to take our tickets for validation in the first place, followed by his simple gesture of generosity, has stayed with me.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a celebrity less self-absorbed.
This Monday (April 24), Rainn launched his new book, “Soul Boom,” to a packed auditorium at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. His book draws from his experiences as a Baha’i, as well as ideas and insights from other traditions, and is filled with funny and insightful stories.
Rainn was kind enough to send me a pair of tickets to attend the event, where he spoke with a co-star from “The Office,” B.J. Novak. The big laughs they got from the audience were no surprise; what I did not anticipate was the earnestness and depth of their discussion.
The highlight for me came when B.J. asked Rainn about the role spirituality plays in his professional work and how it’s shown up at unexpected times. Rainn said that some of the unhappiest moments of his life came at the tail end of his time on “The Office.” He said that as that chapter of his career was coming to a close, all he wanted was for the next big thing: the next big TV show or the next big movie.
Rainn said this was his biggest regret: Instead of enjoying the experience of being on set with people he loved, doing what he loved, living a life he couldn’t have even dreamed, he was focused on the things he didn’t have.
B.J. responded immediately: “I’m so surprised you’re saying that. That’s my biggest regret too.”
I got chills. Such a raw, vulnerable moment. And so relatable, too. We might not all be famous actors or bestselling authors like Rainn and B.J., but I think we all experience this in some way.
That very morning, I had been talking to my wife about my own unfulfilled desires, which in some way reflects a feeling that we don’t yet have enough. That all we need is the next thing, and that’s what’s going to bring us happiness.
I know in my heart that life doesn’t work this way, that joy doesn’t come from outside of us. Or, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh that Rainn shared on stage, “The way out is the way in.”
The thing is, we all know these truths — that finding happiness doesn’t come through objects or achievements, but through daily practices of humility and generosity. At the same time, it’s so easy to forget these truths and slip into dissatisfaction.
That’s why we need regular reminders like these, through friends, through books and, in this case, through a friend’s new book.