Beliefnet
Alan Alda's acting career has spanned 50 years, but most people remember him fondly as Hawkeye Pierce, the gentle, wisecracking battlefield surgeon in the long-running TV series M*A*S*H. (The final episode, which Alda directed in 1983, still holds the record as the most-watched U.S. TV broadcast ever.) The award-winning actor, known for his liberal views and nice-guy persona, has in recent years played against type (Republican candidate Arnold Vinick in "The West Wing" comes to mind). Alda's 70th birthday and a close call with death spurred him to write his memoirs, the newest of which is "Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself." In a recent Beliefnet interview, Alda talks about his values, what gives his life meaning, and whether God is a comedian.

Listen to Alan Alda:
'Do You Think You've Lived a Life of Meaning?On Almost Dying in ChileLooking Back and ListeningThe Best Laughter

 
Could you describe your spiritual path?
 
I was brought up as a Catholic and I’m no longer a Catholic. I don’t talk about my beliefs too much in public  probably because I feel very strongly that it’s something personal—more than personal, it’s private. I always make a distinction between what’s personal and what’s private. As an artist, as an actor, as a writer, you have to use what’s personal to you. You have to be personal about your work; otherwise, it doesn’t ring true. 
 
But  there are some things that are private. And I think belief is one of those things that comes to people in their own way. And just because I believe in something doesn’t mean I think that you should. So part of not talking about them is also not wanting to influence anybody about beliefs. 
 
I do try to figure things out. I think sometimes it can be interesting and even funny to see somebody go through that maze, that obstacle course of trying to figure out what life is and where it leads. 
 
In your book, you did a lot of puzzling over the meaning of life. 
 
'Do You Think You've Lived a Life of Meaning?
Only for me, not for other people. I only started thinking about it because I heard this voice while I was trying to go to sleep one night. The voice was coming from the back of my head. You know, really asking this kind of impertinent question. 
 
“So, tell me,” the voice said, “do you think you’ve lived a life of meaning?” And I said, “Oh, come on. What are you, kidding?” And it said, “No, no.  Really.” 
 
I’m talking to myself, you know. And I said--it said, “Well, if you don’t wake up tomorrow, will this have been a life that meant something?”
 
I was really challenged by that question. So I started to think, Well, if I’m asking myself this question and I had been urging my children and grandchildren and these young people [when I give commencement talks] to think about these things, let me go back and listen to what I said and think about whether or not I’ve followed my own advice. Because, really, when you give advice to other people, you’re really talking to yourself. So that’s how I arrived at the title of the book –"Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself,"  because here I was talking to myself, and I realized that I ought to listen in on that.
 
Celebrity sounds like a big responsibility.  People really listen to you about such things as the meaning of life. 
 
We do tend to get access to the stage and the microphone. And that’s one of the reasons why I don’t like to talk too much about beliefs, because I don’t want to impose on anybody else’s beliefs. 
 
When you were playing Hawkeye, people would even write to you for help—people who were considering killing themselves.
 
That was the most amazing experience. It really shook me a little bit because the first time someone wrote me, it was a kid. I think it was a 14-year-old girl who was despondent and said she was thinking of killing herself and that only I could help her. I mean, she only knew me from seeing me play a character on television. I guess she was confusing the lifesaving doctor I played with the actor. 
 
And I thought about it and I wanted to give her some kind of an answer that would be helpful to her. And I didn’t want to just dash it off. On the other hand, I was working 12-14 hours a day shooting a television show. A few days went by--I think maybe even a week before I came up with an answer I thought would be useful. And then I had this terrible feeling that I had taken so long to answer her that maybe it was too late, even if I could be of any help. 
 
Then I found myself in the position of figuring out a letter that I could send out right away to anybody who wrote me. Because I started to get a number of these notes from people saying that they were thinking of doing away with themselves. 
 
So I wrote this note. And I tried to make it as personal as I could and then I left blank spaces where I could make it, you know, more personal, more appropriate to the actual person who had written me. But a letter that I could get out immediately, as soon as they wrote me. And I also checked it with a psychiatrist to see if I was saying something that might actually be helpful. I also gave them the number of their local suicide help line. So I tried to be as helpful as I could. 
 
Then I had this terrible feeling that what celebrity had turned me into somebody who sends a form letter to someone who’s thinking of killing themselves!
 
So what ultimately is it that gives your life meaning?
 
I find myself going to places where I really have no business, speaking to these people in a whole other field that I  have no extensive knowledge of. But I do it very often because it scares me. And the fright that it gives me, in a way, lets me know I’m alive. And the satisfaction I have when I get through it and I can actually say something that may be useful to them or help them think about something in a different way, or just entertain them. The satisfaction I get out of that is enormous. 
 
That’s really tied in with this whole thing of meaning for me. Because it’s not that I don’t think I have meaning in my life. It’s not that I don’t think I’ve accomplished things. 
 
I think I’m greedy. And I don’t mind admitting it. I’m greedy for that satisfaction of doing something hard and knowing that, even though I was afraid I couldn’t do it, that somehow I can deliver. And so, I’m always looking to scare myself with things. And that gives me the sense of being alive. 
 
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