When someone plays a beloved television character for many years, it can be hard for the audience to picture them as something different. However, it may not be as much of a stretch for anyone to picture Rainn Wilson as not obsessed with beets, but instead obsessed with the beats and the order of the universe. His new project with Reza Alan tackles the questions that go into answering those eternal themes of "who am I and what is my purpose?"
Metaphysical Milkshake is a Luminary exclusive and the first podcast produced by SoulPancake, the Participant-owned company originally co-founded by Rainn, and is an extension of his digital interview series with the same title Metaphysical Milkshake which ran from 2013 -2017. Along with co-host Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American religious studies scholar, writer, and tv host, they dive deep into the questions that make us human, and have some fun along the way. I caught up with them to see how far down this rabbit hole goes.
Do you think the greatest thing is to be loved and love in return?
Reza Aslan: When I was younger, I thought the greatest thing was striving to change the world, to make a mark and leave a legacy. Now I think to love people and be loved in return is a pretty good life.
Rainn Wilson: I agree, but the big question behind that question is "how do you define love?" Is it a feeling in my heart for this person? What if that person is hurting or starving? Do you give them food? What if they're being oppressed? Then to love them means to fight for their release from oppression. Love can't be this passive feeling in one's chest; it has to be converted into action. If you love the planet doesn't that mean we should fight against pollution and things that cause climate change?
RA: Does everyone deserve to be loved? There are people who are just unloveable. If loving people means loving the planet, can you love someone who is actively destroying the planet?
How do you avoid hate in the service of love?
RA: Or do you avoid hate? Maybe hate's a necessary thing. Shouldn't you hate injustice? Shouldn't you hate evil and forces in the world that are actively working to dehumanize and denigrate others? Is hate a bad thing?
RW: Can you hate an injustice and love the person that's committing an injustice? That's the biggest struggle. No easy answer there.
I kinda think the Stones were right when they said "you can't always get what you want but you find sometimes you get what you need."
RW: Are you just asking us questions that are pop songs?
No, only the first two questions.
RA: We talk about this on the show, that life is suffering, and that suffering comes from desire. So how do you stop suffering? Stop desire. That balance between what you want and what you need is where all our moral choices come from.
RW: What I want and what I need are two very different things. What I want, at least what my ego wants, is gratification. I want more comfort, more status, more adulation. I want more stuff. I want things to be easier, but that isn't necessarily best for my growth and development as a human being. What I believe to be my spiritual nature, my soul as it were, is the process of becoming like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. What I need to turn into my butterflyness is for my ego to bump up against things and I need to not always get what I want. So I think in that sense Mick Jagger was right on the money.
I'm reminded of something you said on your show about the first thing you get from religion is identity.
RA: A huge part of what binds the different issues on the show together is this question of "what is the responsibility that we have to others and each other?"
RW: I am religious, and many of our conversations are about spirituality and spiritual topics because we're talking about life's biggest questions and that often incorporates spirituality. A lot of shows avoid anything to do with soul or heaven and hell or free will and god and we said from the beginning we aren't going to shy away from any of that. A lot of people are spiritual but not religious, which is the largest growing affiliation in the western world, and our show is about spiritual questions that all of us face.
What would you guys say your guiding principle has been?
RW: I have a two-fold task moral dilemma. I want to be a better person. I want to become more honest, more compassionate, and more humble as I grow older, which is hard because I'm a narcissist, and at the same time I want to make the world a better place. The better a person I can make myself, the less hypocritical I will be and the more empowering I will be towards making the world a better place. We live in a time in the western world where people are like "yeah I want to be a good person and I don't want to hurt anyone else." That's not gonna cut it anymore.
RA: Things have changed in the last few years and the questions of good and evil have become clearly defined and so much a part of our experience of our day to day lives because we have a satanic demonic being in the white house who is enacting evil in the world as a policy. My moral clarity has been much more well defined in the last few years. What is good and what is evil is so obvious and in your face that simply not taking a side is itself picking a side.
RW: Wait that's another song lyric. "If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice," which seems to be the theme of this interview.
Do you think that in times of greatest evil will come an even better good?
RA: I'd like to hope so. I think that when confronted with evil that's so explicit that it locks up people in cages there's not a constituency out there that's begging people to hunt elephants. My hope is that this period leads to moral clarity and enough people decide they can't sit on the sidelines any more and choose to see good over evil and that will result in a better, more moral country.
RW: I agree with Reza. I think there's two forces in the world. Healing and positivity and forces of destruction and when the world changes in extreme ways, you need both of those to be happening at the same time. The EPA is going to limit the amount of science it looks at when it makes decisions and the Me Too movement is 50 years too late. Men cannot subjugate women in the workplace anymore. It's swept the country and this is a huge positive. It's like that Native American quote, "We both have two wolves inside of us. Which wolf wins the fight? The one that you feed." We want to feed the good wolf and hopefully that wolf will be strong enough to win this battle.
RA: I've never heard that where does that come from?
Rainn heard it on a podcast but couldn't remember which one. He thought it was a Native American podcast that used "wolf" in the title, but I couldn't find one like that. It may have come from The One You Feed podcast which uses that story as a metaphor for life.
How long have you guys known each other?
RW: We met at a Bahai thing nine or ten years ago.
RA: We see the world in the same way, but we have some different views on these big metaphysical questions which allows for some conflict. We take the questions seriously, but don't take ourselves seriously.
Do you have any guests on the show that people wouldn't expect?
RA: We try not to have obvious guests. For instance, we just talked to Mike Schur (creator of The Good Place) about morality and ethics, and those are not the typical conversations you would have with a television writer. We try to ground our questions in the real and concrete until the conversation becomes more existential and metaphysical.
RW: One thing we try to do is keep it less philosophical but more real life application. We had Marianne Williamson on to talk about how spirituality and politics mix. We spoke to a death doula about how we prepare for the inevitability of life which is death and how we can have conversations about it when as a culture we don't look at it. We cover a surprising potpourri of topics.
In the practical sense, one of the questions you guys go back to on your show is, "What do we know for sure?" And the answer is "nothing", so how does that not drive us crazy?
RA: Being comfortable with not knowing is an old adage and can be trite, but it's true that the question is more important than the answer. For a lot of people, some of these issues that are unanswerable can throw people off and drive them away. The fact that they are unanswerable makes them not want to bother. But it's the question that is more important. Strive toward the destination with the knowledge that you'll probably never get there, but give it a whirl.
RW: It's crucial for us as a culture to ask these questions. Too many of the questions being posed in our culture are Democrat vs Republican, red state vs blue state, but these larger questions are for everyone. What's our purpose? How are we connected? If we dig into these questions that will help us answer the question of what divides us.