Rainn Wilson and Authentic Happiness

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First things first, take a deep breath. Relax your shoulders. Roll out your neck if you need to.

It’s a universally recognized truth that there aren’t many people more stressed out, anxious, and sleep deprived than college students, especially when we’re at the beginning of midterm season, and all of us are scrambling to stuff as much information into our brains as we can before we’re leaking knowledge onto the sidewalks. It’s easy around this time of the year to just want to curl up in a ball on our floors or under mounds of blankets and give up on all the classes that are wearing out our souls. Most of us are demoralized, frustrated with our more difficult classes and ourselves, and, admittedly, have seen better days.

That’s how I was feeling this past Monday when Rainn Wilson came to campus, to the point where I wasn’t even that excited to meet him (yay for Honors Program perks). In fact, I was mostly just kicking myself for signing up for dinner with him when I could have been studying for my organic chemistry midterm the next day. But I went, because I knew that my sisters would kill me if I didn’t, and I figured the mental break was probably good for me.

When I originally signed up for the dinner, it wasn’t because he’s Rainn Wilson, the famous Dwight Schrute from The Office. I mean, that is what gave me the extra little push I needed, but mostly I signed up because “chewing on life’s big questions” has been something I’ve been wrestling with for as long as I can remember.

It turns out, a night chewing on life’s big questions was exactly what I needed. It’s probably something that a lot of us need on a much more regular basis, but which gets swept aside under the pressures of going to a school like Miami.

Rainn Wilson is not Dwight Schrute. Sitting one person away from me, my first impression of him was that he was a little bit brusque with a dry sense of humor. He came off as being as stressed and tired as I felt, with the same feeling of “I’d much rather not interact with strangers right now.” The first thing he did when he met all of us, though, was issue a challenge: share something about yourself that no one here knows.

It was his own way, I suppose, of asking us each to share a fun fact about ourselves, but instead of the usual trouble that we all face with this on the first day of classes, we were all suddenly scrambling to come up with something that people wouldn’t expect about us, something different. Intentionally or not, the way that Wilson framed that question forced us to examine our lives and our personalities, what made us special and unique, and then share something that embodied that. When it came to be my turn, I told him that my friends gave me an award last year for hugging people. I did not share that it was a Dundie. Rainn Wilson, using a softer monotone than usual, told me that was nice.

For a brief moment, I forgot that I was stressed, and that I had failed every practice OChem test I had taken that weekend, and that a teacher had still not emailed me back about a problem I’d had with a midterm.

I can’t say that Rainn Wilson is a particularly patient person, or at least, he’s not particularly patient after a day of being shuttled about like a particularly interesting zoo animal and asked basic questions about The Office. He cuts to the chase. If he thinks you just asked a dumb question, or said something idiotic, he makes you aware of that. Still, though, it was easy to see throughout the night how much he cares about people, and he’s not going to soften his personality or try and be someone he’s not. At one point during the dinner, he turned and asked the cater-waitresses how they were doing, and if they were just listening to us, and then directed all of us to ask them a question instead of him.

Rainn Wilson hit “pause” on my week exactly when I needed him to. He made me think, and not just about what life is throwing at me at any given moment, but as a reminder that there is more to who I am as a person than a college junior trying to haul myself through second semester with my soul and sanity intact. He reminded me that there is more to all of us than the personalities we are reduced down to, the expectations that are projected onto us.

At dinner he told a story from his early acting days which had helped shaped him into the person he is today, someone who is comfortable being unapologetically himself. During his first Broadway play, he had been so excited just to be cast that he did everything he could to emulate his perception of what a Broadway actor “should” be. His acting, he said, turned wooden. He fell back on all of his worst habits. He was miserable, because it’s truly grueling to go through a two-month long show run, knowing before it even begins that people don’t like what you’re doing.

The foundation, Wilson told us all at dinner, is key. If you rehearse wrong, you can’t just go back and change it all later.

Time and time again, we must return to our roots. Often, I’ve seen my friends and other college students do the same. Yes, our Miami years are a time for us to explore and gain a better understanding of the people we are and want to be, but in this crucible we call college, we also rediscover the values that have shaped us the most, which aspects of our identity are most essential to us. In college, we lay the foundation. The rest of our lives are the performance we have to get right.

At the lecture that evening, aptly titled “Chewing on Life’s Big Questions,” the nerdy, awkward person that Wilson described himself as being came out full force in the very beginning, when he made fun of all of us for having our phones out to take pictures already, and then bounced through a series of poses for us to snap and keep. He freaked out a little about having prepared too much, and not having enough time to get to share it all (a feeling we all can relate to, I’m sure). Afterwards, he even took us through a mini-tour of his laptop stickers.

Throughout the lecture, however, as Wilson kept guiding all of us through mini-exercises to increase, at least momentarily, our own personal happiness, his authentic self kept shining through. It was clear how important SoulPancake (a multimedia company he started in 2008 with some friends that aims to “explore life’s big questions, celebrate humanity, and champion creativity with integrity, heart, and humor”) is to him, how important his faith is, and the people who have brought him to this moment in his life. He wasn’t jumping up and down or stumbling over his words, but he was excited because SoulPancake is something that matters, not just to him, but to all of us, somehow.

Here is the secret to happiness, according to Rainn Wilson: serving and caring for others, and making sure that you never let your own light be dimmed for one minute of that.

Rainn Wilson may have told us directly that joy itself is a rebellion in a cynical world, but he also taught us that being yourself is also an act of rebellion too, in its own way, in a world that makes so many split second assumptions about all of us, that type-casts us into rolls that were never meant to play. And those two lessons, more than anything else, were things that everyone in attendance needed to hear on a Monday night.

Love radically, be unapologetically yourself, serve others, make things that matter, and you’ll make Rainn Wilson’s visit to this campus meaningful, because in those little ways, you’ll have changed the world.

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