01/28/2011 08:56 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Modern Storytelling and the Search for Meaning

It seems like just yesterday I was listening to my parents lament the changes that were happening in society. "What's the world coming to?" were words that stuck in my mind as I was growing up. At the time, especially during my teenage years, I didn't really understand or appreciate their concern. My parents were just old-fashioned and, to me, didn't get it. Well the times have changed and I guess I'm now old-fashioned too because I keep asking myself, "What's the world coming to?"

Let's consider the social aspects of television as an example of what I'm referring to here. In my youth, watching television was associated with many "negative things," not the least of which was my mother's constant warning that I'd lose my eyesight from watching too much TV or getting too close to the television set. I also remember many pejorative terms for television, including referring to it as the "boob tube." If there ever was a time when television could more accurately be called the boob tube, then this must be it. Leaving little to the imagination, television programming in the 21st century has gone far beyond anything that I can remember watching in my formative, character-building years.

Whereas I was glued to the tube (it literally was a "tube" at the time!) watching such provocative shows as "Leave It To Beaver," "My Three Sons," and my favorite, "Cheyenne," the first original television series produced by a major Hollywood film studio, Warner Brothers (I even acknowledge its star, Clint Walker, also known as the "Big Guy" in the movie, "The Dirty Dozen," in my book, "Prisoners of Our Thoughts," for his meaningful influence on my life and for reading my book), the youth of today are constantly bombarded by programming that, in my personal and professional opinion, leaves much to be desired. It not only robs viewers of all ages from using their imaginations in ways that actually increase society's individual and collective intelligence quotient, but also demeans what it means to be human -- and all of the potential that comes with it.

Alas, as my parents used to say, what is the world coming to? Are the 15 minutes of fame afforded characters on shows like "Jersey Shore" and the so-called "Real Housewives" really worth our attention and time? Does "reality TV" provide more benefits than it does costs, as well as perhaps collateral damage, in terms of its ultimate influence on society and humanity? How far are we willing to go and how far is enough in the quest to capture audience market share? And what is the deeper meaning and purpose of such efforts? Do we know? Do we care? Do we even ask? Moreover, what does the new MTV racy teen drama "Skins" say about our society? Does this kind of programming reflect the will to meaning, that is, the authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals, or is it more the reflection of a superficial "will to pleasure?" Do the messages and underlying stories conveyed by these shows help to bridge the generational divide, foster change that we can believe in, and build a healthier society? Once again, what's the world coming to?

Behind the camera if not in front of it, I firmly believe that the search for meaning will continue to unfold as a megatrend of our times. And I feel that it is vitally important for society -- at all levels -- to do some serious soul-searching before we each make our exit off-stage. Who are we? What have we become? What are we becoming? What and who would we like to become? Fundamentally, these are existential questions that have been asked for millennia, questions that still beg for meaningful answers.

I've also learned over the course of my lifetime so far that there is tremendous power, as well as deep meaning, in storytelling. Indeed, the stories that people tell serve as the container that gives meaning to their lives and that holds their world together. Storytelling, among other things, invests our lives with more meaning and connects us more vitally to others. Stories also render our lives more memorable and therefore provide an effective way to alter the "Law of the Forgetting Curve," a principle discovered by Dr. Hermann Ebbinghaus, a 19th century German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory. Due to our natural inclination to "forget" things over time, storytelling provides a platform and medium for retaining information that needs and should be retained.

In this way, one of the powers of storytelling is that it provides both a lifeline and a storyline. As such it also offers us a "bridge," if you will, to connect events, milestones, etc., across generations, providing both a living history and a mythology that are necessary for sustaining cultural identity, stimulating continuous learning and development, and planning for the future. Storytelling has even been found to have healing powers, as well as provide pathways to spiritual enlightenment. Imagine what our world would be like if we did not have stories to tell, tales to share with others? Indeed, where would my Greek ancestor, Aesop, be if he had been unable to craft his stories, each fable fitting a definite moral?

Stories, of course, come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Years ago I came across a Texas-based storyteller who divided stories with true meaning into four categories: "Ha-Ha!" (stories that are funny); "Aha!" (stories that surprise or delight the mind); "Ahhh..." (stories that touch deep emotions); and "Amen" (stories that move the spirit). As a practical exercise, try placing the television programs of yesteryear and today into one or more of these categories? Can you do it? If not, what's the world coming to?

Most readers, on the other hand, can surely resonate with the deeper meaning of stories that have to do with their family, ethnic or cultural group, or religion. To be sure, we'd be lost without them (and I'm not referring to another TV show here)! Most indigenous cultures, in fact, rely heavily on storytelling as a way of maintaining traditions and bridging what we now sadly refer to as the "generational divide." Living in the American Southwest, I'm very familiar with the Native American tradition of storytelling by tribal elders intent on maintaining their way of life over the ages. I also know many innovative organizations that use storytelling to orient new hires and spark the creative spirit by going back to the future and connecting them meaningfully to the company's history, culture and traditions.

Not long ago, I'm proud to say, I found the power of storytelling to be alive and well in the homeland of my family on the island of Crete. Interestingly, the "Friends of Amari" is comprised mostly of members who are not of Greek heritage but who love both Greece, especially the majestic Amari Valley, the boyhood playground of Zeus, and storytelling. Led by my friend, Stella Kassimati who splits her time between the U.K. and Crete, this group is seeking to establish a cultural center and international school of storytelling in the Village of Amari. Passionate about how this oral tradition is integral not only to Crete but also to Greece's larger cultural heritage, Stella told me that, "Stories are basically concerned with the meaning of life and remembering what it is to be human." Indeed, the art of storytelling is central to Greek life and culture. And like for all of you, storytelling offers me yet another lifeline in the human quest for meaning!

You can find out more about Dr. Alex Pattakos, author of the internationally bestselling book "Prisoners of Our Thoughts," in his HuffPost bio. You can learn about his new initiative, The OPA Way!® of "living a happy, healthy, meaningful life," as well as join the new OPA! Village (it's free!) at

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