2017-07-27
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 Chile
Looking Back and Listening
The 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. 
 
I know that you had a close call with death. Did it change your life?
 
On Almost Dying in Chile
It did, as it does for many people who come very close to dying. I was about two hours away from dying, they tell me. I was on a mountaintop in Chile and I had these horrible pains. And it turned out that about a yard of my intestine was dead and more of it was dying every minute. 
 
And a surgeon who was in the ER that night in this little town in Chile was an expert in intestinal surgery. And he therefore knew how to diagnose it within a very short time and opened me up and saved my life. A couple of hours later I might not have made it. 
 
I woke up so glad to be alive that I was kind of surprised to see how long it’s lasted. I think maybe I was so glad that I wanted to make it last every way I could. And I think the first book I wrote was an attempt to do that. 
 
And the second book has been an attempt to deepen it, to see--as long as I’m alive, what am I going to do with this life? How can I make it count the most? How can I  get that feeling that I’m not wasting my time? Because time is all I have, and I have now been given this extra time on the clock that I’m very much aware is a great gift, and I really don’t want to waste it. 
 
What do you want to do with this extra time?
 
Looking Back and Listening
I’ve given this an enormous amount of thought. I’ve looked back over my whole life. And as I go back and listen to the things I said, I come up with a surprising realization that nothing I’ve accomplished really means all that much to me now,  having accomplished it.
 
In the process of accomplishing it, there’s a wonderful feeling of--it must be the feeling I’m looking for when I talk about meaning. There’s this tremendous feeling of being okay. That you’re here, you’re really here and you’re really doing something and it counts. 
 
Nothing really matches that except simple awareness, simply being aware of my life and welcoming life. And being grateful for life because it’s time limited. It has a short shelf-life, this experience we have of being here. And I look for ways now to notice what I’m doing every second that I’m doing it. Sometimes I can drive myself crazy doing that. 
 
I make oatmeal every day. I mean, I make a whole big vat of it in the beginning of the week because I want to save time. So I zap it in the microwave for three minutes every day. Take a bunch out and put it in the microwave and then I don’t have to spend a half an hour making this--you know, this great time-consuming Irish oatmeal that I like. So I went to the microwave and opened it up when the bell dinged the other day. And I noticed that the oatmeal had spent exactly three minutes in the microwave, and I didn’t know how I had spent those three minutes. They had slipped me by. Three minutes of this precious life I was so glad to have since I woke up alive in Chile had gone by without my noticing it. 
 
Well, then I started thinking. What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to worry about every second?
 
It sounds like the spiritual teachers in Buddhism who practice being present. I guess it sounds like mindfulness.
Well, I guess it’s similar, although I never studied that and I wouldn’t want to presume that that’s what I’m doing. But it sounds like my version of it. 
 
I don’t think the Buddhist monks want to do things quicker, though.
 
No, but they want to be--well, I want to be aware of everything I’m doing. The next thing I did was become so aware of putting my shoes on that I was getting nuts. So I think there’s a point at which even being aware can be funny. It’s finding out what’s amusing about what you’re going through is one of the ways that I have of being in the moment.
 
The Best Laughter
I guess I’ve always loved the laughter that recognizes underneath that things are not perfect. Some of the best laughs occur at funerals. People talk about the departed and sometimes with an anecdote—or I’ve even heard them do an impersonation that evokes that person. It brings the person there for a minute or two. That is the laughter of presence and connection. In the midst of the sense of tragedy or loss, sometimes laughter is not only healing, it’s a way of experiencing the person that you’ve lost again. 
 
Do you think that if there is a God he’s someone who’s laughing? 
 
God--oh, God is definitely standup, yeah. 
 
Have you ever had a spiritual experience or an uncanny experience? 
 
Oh, I’ve had many uncanny experiences. I think it’s hard to be alive and not have them. But I I don’t know if I can decide what that means or what they are. 
 
Finding a doctor who specialized in that kind of surgery in a small town in the mountains of  Chile, wasn’t that kind of a spiritual experience? 
 
Well, I don’t know…but I brought the doctor back and his family. I fell in love with them. I was so grateful to them and they’re very lovely people. So my wife and I invited them up to New York for a vacation a few months later, and that’s when I found out that he’s a firm believer in angels.
 
Who would you say inspired you most in your life?
 
Well, I think my wife [Arlene] has the most. I know this sounds sentimental, but it’s really true that I think I have three birthdays. I have the one I was born on. Then when we got married, that began a new life for me. And my life with her has been far richer, more humanizing than it would’ve been if we hadn’t. 
 
And you’ve been married a long time.
 
For 50 years this year. And the third birthday I celebrate is October 19th when I was brought back to life in Chile.


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