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Dr. Alex Pattakos: The golden age of Greece is coming

08 September 2010 / 13:09:37  GRReporter
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Interview by Maria S. Topalova

I met Dr. Alex Pattakos in the elegant lobby of the Inn of the Anasazi hotel in the very historical center of Santa Fe. Colleagues from the local press have recommended him to me as the most eminent representative of Americans of Greek origin in the city. However, to limit the fame of Dr. Pattakos only to the capital of New Mexico will be neither fair nor true. The program one of the most prominent representatives of the theory of positive thinking and author of the Prisoners of Our Thoughts translated in 16 languages is too tense. Our meeting is possible within a short time span between his lecture in Vancouver, Canada and the numerous preparations for the launch of his latest project - OPA Day. Naturally, the first questions relate to Prisoners of Our Thoughts.

How did it happen to get involved in exactly this theory, research, and concept?

I have always been on a meaning quest in my own life. There was much of dichotomy in my family. My father was very domineering person in my life and I was very reactionary to him. We had a lot of struggle when I was growing up, because I was struggling with my name, my culture, with my father’s desire. He was telling me: “If you want to be a good American you have to have a certain profession and you have to do this” and I tried to choose my direction. When I was a teenager I was always fighting him. On the other hand, I have always been interested in mental health.. It always bothered me when people were depressed or sad because I didn’t understand why they would be. I have never felt like this. You get over it, you turn the page.

So, I got involved in the mental health system and I became a therapist. In the early years I worked in a mental house in the army, I worked in a mental house when I got out of the army. Then I became a journalist for a while and I got involved in politics. And I have always been interested in the meaning like why are people making decisions like these, why are people mental patients.

While I was in high school I read Viktor Frankl’s first book, called The Men’s Search for Meaning. I read it again when I was working in the mental health system later. I disagreed with Freud in some of the theories about the human behaviour. I studied out more psychology and I have always resonated with Frankl. I started to just develop that interest more and more. And I was always asking about the meaning of life. I started to communicate with Dr. Frankl, first by letter and then by e-mail. And then I went to Vienna to meet with him. And that was really going to build it. I wanted to take his idea of meaning. When you get people to connect meaningfully with others there is a spiritual compound. You know that if you have a real friend or a real partner in life. It is not just we have a contract, written down marriage license or an employment contract. If people have spiritual bond, spiritual connection it means you trust each other, you respect each other and so forth.

The more I got in Franle’s work the more I understood this. What is the meaning of politics? Why people don’t want to vote? They do not feel connected. Why are people upset in their family life or in health? This is about the others, the purpose and the attitude. And those three elements comprise the guidebook to meaning for life.

One of the main principles in your book is the freedom to choose our attitude to life and to its situations. Isn’t there a danger to look too optimistic to a situation which is not optimistic, to create illusions by thinking too positive for a difficult situation of life?

This book was inspired by a mentor that I had – psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the holocaust. He survived an experience that none of us would ever want. And he used this notion of the freedom to choose our attitude as a way not to march in lies or make the situation he was experiencing in any way less important. He was in Auschwitz and he was wondering if he was going to live to the next moment. He didn’t look at his attitude in the sense that “Oh, isn’t this great, I’m getting tortured. And I’ve got a positive attitude exhibiting that I’m getting a good day today.” What he did was that he was able to use his choice of attitude: “I can do, I will survive the horrific things I am experiencing so that I will see my family again. I will get out.”

And what we found is that the choice of attitude means nothing more than to find and accept that the positive attitude is intrinsic; it is inside of you to keep you going. If we look at my family, many of its members were killed by the Nazis, they fought the Turks. I mean for hundreds of years because I’ve traced my family roots back to 1090 already. It was all for their attitude. They probably would have given up but the whole idea, for example, Nikos Kazanadzakis’ Freedom or Death, that’s an attitude notion, because you say “I will go for freedom, I’m going to have it this moment.”

And yes, the economy sucks. Yes, I’ve just lost my job. But what happens if you have a negative attitude? You become a victim. And this is so true in many other cultures. They are very much burdened by their attitude. That locks them in mental prison. That keeps them from finding their opportunities. So, in no way is the choice of attitude saying “I want to look to everything in rosy coloured glasses.” and say “Yes, the economic crisis is so wonderful, I love it, and I can’t wait so, please, cut my pension 50%.”

If you can change your attitude internally, that will at least help you and inspire you to protest or look for another job or figure out a new way of protecting your family, so that you don’t bother for the food, for example. But if you give up, that’s what Frankl found in Auschwitz: when the people loose the idea, their freedom to choose their attitude, that’s when they die.

We have done a lot of work with people who came back from Afghanistan and Iraq. If their attitude is bad, when they come here they say: “The war is terrible or I lost my job, I have nothing left to my life.” Within six months most of them even die, become alcoholics, drug addicts. So, the can-do positive attitude is about your own internal spirit. It’s keeping the spirit alive. And it doesn’t mean you look at everything in abuse and say “Great!” A woman, which is in domestic violence situation isn’t supposed to say “Oh, yes! That felt so good! Beat me up again!” But her positive attitude is going to enable her to take some steps to get out of the relationship or to call the police, or to protect the kids.

So, you have to look at it in the context. This is not a generic thing. But a lot of us forget that we have the freedom to choose the attitude. Recently, I worked with patients that had a car accident. And I am convinced that the choice of attitude can help you physically. Because when you have a positive attitude you say “At least I survived, at least nobody else was killed” and it allows you to move forward and keeps your health. In one story it kept a young lady from going into shock. The emergency, the medical personnel, said that her positive attitude kept her from going into shock and that she could have collapsed and died. So, the attitude is about health.

Do you mean the wrong choice of attitude when you say in the book that people very often work against themselves?

Don’t work against yourself is another principle of positive thinking. The first thing is being aware why we do things that are not in our best interest. I will give you an example. Being over zealous about going to a job promotion or like the teenagers to get a good grade – they try so hard that they stumble over their feet. When somebody wants to get a promotion at work they are so excited, they are so sure that they are going to get the promotion. Actually they want the promotion so much that they spend all their time getting in front of the boss and the supervisors, and the co-workers and they are trying to make themselves look good. And their boss thinks they are noxious, because they are always there trying to show off. And they don’t realize that they are working against themselves. They have to relax a little bit, pull back, have a sense of humour, and not be so obsessed. That is assessable awareness, being conscious of how you affect other people.

How is that related to the choice of attitude? In some cases when you fix you are not getting something you really want you start to try so hard. Your choice of attitude almost falls because in some cases if you try that hard it probably means that deep down inside you don’t think you worth it, so you are trying to overcompensate. If your attitude is: “I feel pretty good about that thing, because I like my work. If I get the promotion this time, it’s great. I deserve it and I will get it.” That’s more likely to help you. If you do that kind of approach and you don’t get a raise after many times of trying, then your choice of attitude needs to think about: “What happens if I didn’t get this job? It’ll be ok, I’ll find another one. Maybe I’ll find one for less money but I’ll like better. Maybe I’ll get a job that has more money.”

A lot of time people try so hard to get something and they work against themselves, because they don’t have the ability to see for their attitude that they have options. A lot of people in Greece are faced with cut in their pension and they don’t see another option. And their kind of life is like a fly on a windowsill. Sometimes you see a fly. It’s on a windowsill trying to buzz its way out. It sees the light in the other side of the window and it’s trying to get out. It can get out. The door can be opened and it could fly out of the door but it doesn’t do that and it ends up dying on the windowsill.

I mentioned this at a conference in California and I said “Don’t die on the windowsill of life like a fly, looking out of the window.” A lot of people do that. They say: “This is my only job. This is the only thing I have. I only have this pension.” and they see no other options. It adds more stress to their life. And it creates more hardship, adds more illness. So, people need to be shown options. Your choice of attitude frees you. That’s why this idea of not being a prisoner of your thoughts so that you can say: “I can do some other things. Maybe I start a new business. Maybe I’ll work at my neighbours on something.”

There are a lot of people particularly in the villages who much more appreciate and the little that they have. We’ve talked to so many people particularly older generations and they say: “We’ve seen the worse. We’ve been to Turks, to Nazis. We will make it through.” I believe the golden age of Greece is coming. I think Greece is further along; it is a kind of a leader of this domino overcoming the crisis, neither are Spain and Portugal. And you’ve got the United States. We are not that far behind. We are spending more money… The only difference is that Greece can not print more money. Greece is stuck, it is in the European Union, you know. But in the USA we are acting as if nobody can spend more money – we create inflation.

You emphasize a lot on the team work. You encourage people to work together in their families, with their colleagues from the work to achieve this positive thinking. Why the team work is so important?

It is not so much team work but the meaning of others in our life, because if you are working and connecting meaningfully with others you are much more likely to find solutions. Besides, you are sharing the risk, you are sharing the burden. But if you end up saying that the world is falling on your shoulders, then you are the ancient Greek Sisyphus. You are trying to push the ball up the heel every time it gets the top of the heel and comes back down. And it is a constant, endless, joyless striving for something you will never get. It is much more likely to get it if you connect. This connection may be teamwork in a business, in a company.  And that is the reason unions were organized, because they found power in numbers.

But sharing is more than just numbers. It is about sharing values, it is about sharing risk, it is about sharing hardship, it is about sharing opportunities. And if people could see that – and that’s what the others is about – then they will find the meaning. If you go to a village, to a Cretan wedding you will see that the weddings are not just for the bride and groom. They are not only for their families. Not just for the village. The wedding is for anybody who shows up. The connectivity is such a powerful force. And that is piece.

The other is teamwork but teamwork is a buzz word. “Let’s have better teamwork!” But then people aren’t really connected with each other because they are fighting with each other. They do not trust each other. The true connection really is authentic connection. We don’t have to drive a Hammer; we don’t have to have big shopping centers. So, what if I didn’t make millions of dollars? I have a million dollar life.

You meet a lot of people. You teach at the university, you consult people, travel, you make speeches… What makes people so vulnerable to become prisoners of their thoughts now in the beginning of 21st century?

We can go back to the middle of the 20th century. If we go back right after the World War II, Frankl described that the society has three major problems or conditions we have to deal with if we are going to have a better society, a better world. I call this psychological access of evil in the 21st century. These are strict conditions. These are the symptoms of the pulse of society. The first is the addiction. We see unbelievable addictions. Addiction to drugs and alcohol, addiction to shopping, addiction to the Internet. We have more addictions now than whenever in the 1940s or before. Sexual addiction. The second is the aggression. Think about aggression. Exultation. Aggression it terms of each other, war, violence, crime… There is a lot of aggression in a destructive kind of a way. And then comes the depression. Frankl and then I in my writing see that symptomatic of modern day in the modern society.

We have to deal with that, because those three conditions are promoting a sense of meaninglessness for a lot of people. A lot of people cross the generations. Young people are wandering “Do I have security? What is going my life to be like in the future?” Old people are retiring: “How am I going to deal with all this?” So, they start to get into depression or addicted behaviours or they are getting into aggressive behaviours in some cases. Road rage, parking rage… Somebody shuts up the company and people are supposed to resign their jobs but they see that in the headlines.

Those are the three societal conditions that we have to watch very carefully. They manifest themselves in different way. It is really sad in Greece, because what is going on with the anarchists is creating a kind of meaninglessness. I refer to this journalist that was recently killed in Athens. It is about the organization that assumed the responsibility… They are nihilists. They don’t value the meaning of life. And a lot of Americans don’t like that. That creates the aggressive, depressive and addicted kind of conditions in society. And what happen is that we move into more complex forms of being, of living together. There is a big difference between the local community and the complex modern society.

People in the local community know each other, they trust each other, and they love the neighbourhood. They would never rob anybody, hurt anybody. It is not honourable. The modern society is complex. People are not personally connected and that’s why we have to be careful with the Internet, people are now living in this ultimate reality, they have an avatar that represents their ego. As we move into those phases of societal evolution, we are moving away from the village. And as we get away from that we are no longer responsible and accountable. So, we have to find a kind of balancing point. You can’t have true freedom if anybody can do whatever they want, because this causes the major conditions of aggression, depression and addiction.  

The more we can focus and help people find the purpose in their work, in their everyday life, the more we can help them change and shift their attitude. The more likely we are going to raise their consciousness so that they can have happier, healthier and meaningful life. This is a mission. That can happen today, tomorrow but the key here is to respect the roots of contemporary Western civilization that are really embedded in the soul and soil of Greece. And people need to respect that, understand that and take the best of it. We are not talking about all the corruption in Greece.

Your new business initiative is also connected with Greece. Tell us a little more about it.

The business, the name of the model, the product, the logo is called the OPA day. You know everybody say “opa-opa” in Greece. This is not just a word which doesn’t have an exact translation but a word that means a lot of different things. It is inspiring. It raises people. It’s a nice word. It gets people to dance. We are using it is as acronym. In English the O stands for others. It’s focusing on others rather than yourself, caring for others. It could be your family, your community, the country, the co-workers. So, it’s all about others. The P is about purpose. It links to the meaning idea. It means having a purpose in your life, having a purpose of taking care of your family, taking care of your customers on the job, taking care of the kids if you are teacher, taking care of your neighbourhood, your community. And the A stands for attitude. So, to have a can-do positive attitude that will get you through the stresses of life. OPA is the word but is also the concept.

We are first creating an online village; it is most like facebook, but it will be called the OPA Village. People can join for free. There will be videos, audios, blog, and place for the people to communicate with each other. There will be a section called All Things Greek and it’s going to have philosophy. Our target is non-Greeks. These are the people who don’t understand that Greece has made many contributions to their language, their architecture, to arts, to medicine, to science. And we want to help bring this to the surface, because many people use expressions that are coming from the Greek and they don’t even know what it is about. That is part of the initiative.

The other thing is that we want to celebrate the Greek culture in a positive way, because right now we hear negative things. We go back to Greece many times so we know it’s not as bad. The country is struggling. We want to help tourism; we want to help the business. So, we are ready to launch a new holiday. Every September 15 will be OPA day. We are launching it in Rethymno in Crete for the first time.  Then it will go outside. We want September 15 to be OPA day every year. We will start promoting it to the media to go to Toronto, Chicago, Santa Fe, Melbourne, Sidney, and London. Greek restaurants will celebrate OPA day on September 15, 2011. And instead of the green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, we will have blue beer. I received an e-mail from a Greek brewery. We will make celebration.

But it’s different than the Greek festivals. I’m Greek orthodox, I grew up in a Greek orthodox family and I know the Greek festivals are basically fund raising for the church. And we will have nothing to do with religion. Pardon me, Father! We want this to be something that people can celebrate. Universities may have parties on September 15. We chose September 15 because the United Nations declared September 15 World Democracy Day. But the UN says nothing about where did the democracy start - it started in Greece. We want that day to be a celebration of democracy, science, art…but also a day for fun. It’s not religious.  Anybody, any culture, people in Asia can celebrate it.

How did you settle yourself in America?

I am second generation American. My father was a Greek citizen. My family is from Crete, a very proud Cretаn family that immigrated here in early 1920s. And when they were ready to leave the planet and die they went back. So, they are buried back in Greece. My father and his brother were Greek Americans, but they were Greek citizens and went back many, many times. I was the oldest kid in the family and my father wanted me to be a successful American. And when I was growing up it was very difficult to have a last name like Pattakos. It was funny. It’s not like today. Today you can have more pride in your ethnicity. When I was very young it was very difficult to have a family with an accent, a dialect, because your friends would come over and my friend’s name is Billy Jones – good American name. America is changing now because of multiculturism. Mostly Americans were referred to as WASPs – White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

If you had a family that is Greek orthodox, it was as if you were from the twilight zone. They were unfamiliar with it. Your family had a very strong accent; it was very loud and boisterous. And a lot of people say “Is this your family? You are like savages.” And I was a little kid. I remember people mispronounced my name. Instead of saying Pattakos they would say Patakos, Pajakos, Pokahonas, Potatoes. They made fun of me while I was at school. They wouldn’t do that now. First of all I am going to sue them. Those kinds of names, because they do not come from the Anglo-Saxon part of the world, and I was growing up outside the New York City and outside New York, in New Jersey, they were much unknown. They weren’t accepted. But I still realized that I didn’t have the same problem as my father, my grandparents, because I didn’t face that kind of discrimination. I was a morph, they made fun of me. And I remember telling my dad I wish my name would have been different. I wished it to be Patterson instead of Pattakos. Some of the members of my family did change their names when they immigrated here. The changed it to Peters, in short of their dad’s name. My godfather’s name was Despopoulos and he changed to Despo to sound more English. Nowadays you don’t have to do that.

Why did you choose Santa Fe?

My father was an engineer many, many years ago and he worked in New Mexico. I came back here when I was in the army and I went to school here. I went to university in Albuquerque. I was at the university in Albuquerque, then in Illinois. So, it’s always been like this. Not Albuquerque but this Santa Fe area has always been a place of peace and spirituality, health and wellness. It reminds me a lot of Crete.

Is your book Prisoners of Our Thoughts translated in Greek?

It is not translated in Greek. It is published in 20 languages but not in Greek. And the reason is partly in my last name because I am related with Stivianos Pattakos – the last living member of the junta. There are some people who to this day still have animosity towards the junta. There is good percentage that moves on but there are still some that are stuck. And they are so focused on that. I am proud of my uncle because he is part of my family.

Tags: Alex PattakosPrisoners of Our ThoughtsMaria S. TopalovaInterview
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