Listen — I save the most important for middle. Praying that someone else understand YOU is a futile prayer. The only person we can change is ourselves. Likewise, the only way to get any value out of reading or prayer or even sitting across from someone at the dinner table is having the ability to listen.
As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rev. Dr. Rick Patterson.
Rev. Dr. Rick Patterson is the author of “Shame Unmasked: Disarming the Hidden Driver Behind our Destructive Decisions”. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Western Michigan University and masters and doctoral level degrees in ministry from Western Theological Seminary. Rick has spent 20 years in corporate America in sales, sales management, and business management for a global chemical firm where he is currently employed as a product operations manager. He is the adoptive parent of a sibling group of four children, operates a beef cattle operation, and spent twelve years in professional ministry.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Middle class, college educated white nuclear family with a brother and sister. Pretty boring at face value but deeply impactful in terms of setting a world-view (not always a helpful one).
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I’ve had a couple “careers” all inspired by a warped psychology ☺. I’ve had the longest career in sales and product management for a chemical firm. I got into that because I found a way to get the university to pay for my degree plus give me a living allowance. I also have masters and doctoral level degrees in ministry and spent twelve years in professional ministry. I thought my entry into ministry was a call from God but, upon later reflection, it was probably a narcissistic need to “make the church great again”.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I authored a book combining my experiences in corporate America, professional ministry combined and the interracial adoption of a sibling group of 4 African American pre-teens. The book outlines how shame motivates our destructive decisions and gives a path to escape its grasp. I’m hoping this will help people reduce the amount of self-destructive behavior in their lives while minimizing the decisions people make they later regret.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
My adopted children were instrumental in helping me see how shame was driving my narcissistic and overachieving tendencies. I remember one time in particular one of my daughters shared with me how ugly she felt she was because of her African American facial features. Instead of empathizing and hearing her pain, I did what any overachieving, narcissistic white male will do…. I fixed her! Little did I realize at the time that was my shame demanding I do something beyond just caring for my little girl.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Shame frequently requires me to get super defensive and angry when I’m challenged. At a church meeting (when I was in professional ministry) I flew into a rage when I was challenged on an issue and F bombed two of the people in the room. It wasn’t long after that I realized the degree to which shame had a hold on me and how it was dictating my behavior for the worse!
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I do a lot of reading so it’s hard to pick just one. However, Richard Rohr, who endorsed my own book, wrote one on the spirituality of maturation called Falling Upward. It describes the process of moving, with age, from being productive to generative — from building to giving. A need for productivity has been my archenemy in life and I want to learn to be more generous. I think that’s where the battle with shame is the most intense for me.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm– but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves. T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party, (1974), p. 111
This quote describes what we’re capable of if we let shame, which is the root of narcissism, control our decisions. This is not about people who ARE important it’s about people who “want to feel” important. That defined my life for the longest time and the decisions I made, such as going into ministry, stem from this need.
I did not grow up in a religious home. I can remember my parents being very concerned about my choice to leave corporate America for ministry. My dad asked why I would do such a thing!! ☺. I quoted Steve Jobs trying to hire John Sculley from Apply by saying, “do you want to go through life selling sugar water or do you want to change the world.” “Dad”, I said, “I want to change the world”.
Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting to change the world. We should in many ways want to change it. But the need that was driving me was the desire to feel important. That can only be harmful.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the combination of demonstrating a reason and creating a space for people to follow. My wife is a great example of this. She’s an elementary school principle who wants to change the world because she cares about the world. So she demonstrated a reason to look at a new type of elementary education based on Stephen Covey’s “5 Habits” work to excel beyond what’s always been done in public education. But you can’t just demonstrate the reason. She then created a space into which her staff, her boss, the parents and the board of education could follow to achieve the goals the program set out.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
We live in an increasingly narcissistic time where our individual needs matter more than those of the community. This is a space in which shame thrives. Shame’s goal is to separate us into “tribes” or “prides” in a very animalistic sense. This gives us an opportunity to feel good about ourselves and the work that we are doing on our own behalf. As such, we also need an enemy — someone on to whom we can project our own self-hatred. This used to be done along racial lines but is now being done along political lines with racism simmering along the sidelines.
I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?
I’m a white, middle aged, evangelical Christian who raises beef cattle. I live in the space of political conservatism. My friends are there. I can empathize with them. I know why they are hurting and I know how they are being manipulated by their needs to believe things that are not true. I was given the gift of seeing things differently because of my adopted children and the way that experience opened up my eyes to alternate points of view.
However, there is very little space for empathy for the “enemy” in our worlds today. Even though I know these are generally and genuinely good people, there is no empathy allowed for them. Doing so will put me at odds with my spouse and my children.
That said, I am also not allowed to have empathy for my children in the eyes of the evangelical Christian blue-collar community either. People like my children have become the “enemy” to many of my colleagues and friends. Our inability to even say something like “black lives matter” because our feelings our hurt by the insinuation that the rest of lives don’t matter is a great example of the way shame has overtaken the discourse.
It is a very broken place that brings me a great deal of constant sorrow — perhaps not unlike a child of divorcing parents who loves them both and hates watching them destroy each other.
In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?
Bridging the divide in families — or any divide really — is based on the Covey principle of seeking first to understand. I think that’s 99% of the battle. If we really try to understand where other people are coming from, it goes almost all they way to resolution. The other 1% is to not be afraid of losing. When it comes to our families, the saying of Dr. Phil comes into play here — would you rather be right or be married. Our desire to be right is driven by shame. In the grand scheme of things it almost never has any material outcome if we are proven right or wrong. It just helps us feel good about ourselves. We have to find a way to give that up.
My sister in law is afraid of losing income from a democratic administration. She’s afraid of taxation and she’s afraid of just giving money away and being in debt. I believe these are all reasonable fears and I let her know that. That’s empathy. I share her fears. Some people can’t share the fears. This is where things break down. In preaching school they used to say “people don’t care what you know until they know you care”.
When it was my turn, I brought up the President how mocked the handicapped and suggested I simply couldn’t follow anyone who was willing to denigrate that group of people — unable to defend themselves. I said that no amount of money I could lose is worth that to me. This struck home because my sister-in-law’s daughter is handicapped in that sort of way.
Note that I didn’t tell her she had to agree with me. I didn’t have to win her over to my “side”. That does nothing to bridge. But I gave her a way to empathize with him and the challenge I have voting Republican.
How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?
This is the case I was in with a colleague at work as well. He was convinced the election was being stolen. I could see the amount of hate he had for those who had “stolen” the election. You can’t argue with that kind of hate. Nor can logic or reason prevail. What can prevail? Empathy. I appreciated where he was coming from. Politics is often about stealing and blaming and lying. I appreciated the fact that he was being used by these politicians and he didn’t even realize it. I also appreciated the fact that he never had 4 African American kids calling him dad. That makes a world of difference.
I told him how my kids saw things. I told them of the pain they’ve experienced. I call this “going third person” — it’s not a direct attack this way. I have them a perspective from other people I love without actually taking a side myself.
I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?
We have to learn to self-identify first. If we align with any “tribe” or “pride” to an extent that we’re making decisions we would later regret or that are harmful to those we love, I truly wonder the extent to which we’ve actually lost our ability to “self”-identify. Our choices are now being made for us by a collective thought and, as I said, when this happens we have to find someone to be “against” to define the boundaries of who we are “for”. We must now have to give up our own self-thought in order to maintain our group identity. Things go sideways when an institution starts making our individual choices for us.
This is most starkly seen for me in the world of evangelical Christianity. White evangelicals have given up identification in the person of Jesus Christ in order to identify with a person who looks to be almost entirely his opposite — Donald Trump. This following of Christ has literally had to change allegiances — and their self-identity — in order to maintain the identity of the group.
Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?
Social media will continue to drive us until we realize the extent to which it’s driving us. This seems like an oxymoron of sorts but I’m afraid it’s the reality in which we live. As I mentioned earlier, we all need someone to hate and social media gives us that venue to locate that person — even if that person ends up being our own selves.
This brings up a secondary point about social media. If it generates a sense of self hatred, it will be impossible to overcome division because as long as we hate ourselves, we will need to find somewhere for that hate to go (psychologists call this transference) and it will be someone our “group” is suggesting we hate.
Regardless, until there is an awareness of this role that social media is playing, it will be impossible to contain it.
What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?
This is similar to the point above. There has to be a realization that it’s happening. There has to be a secondary realization that these “pundits” financially gain by generating the division — that there are going to be winners and losers and our job is to win. They are producing substantial income off our hate and our need to hate. However, until that message and that realization is out there, the odds we will overcome it are slim. It’s important here to not attempt to overcome it globally but to overcome it one person at a time.
Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?
We get past this type of hysteria when the consuming public quits paying for it. That’s the reality of our consumer driven market. This only exists because people are buying it. Hopefully reason will take over as we see that we survived Donald Trump and we will survive Joe Biden. We may even see that each individual did some good along with their bad. But things exist in our country only because there’s a market.
Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
My wife and I were involved in the interracial adoption of a sibling group of four African American pre-teens. It was the hardest thing I ever did. Below are the 5 actionable things I did to bridge some very large divides.
Reading brings you into conversation with people smarter than yourself on a given topic. If we truly want to be proactively addressing the divides in our own sphere, we will need some advice from outside our sphere who can, perhaps, see more clearly.
I was moved by an odd, academic book that describes the psychological fires burning in all of us. Those fires, it seems, subconsciously chart our course for us — perhaps without even knowing it. It was at this point I became more aware that I wasn’t making the best decisions for a unified front INSIDE MY OWN SELF!!
Most people pray. And here, I’m not talking about asking for miracles that we will somehow see our divisions healed (though, I suppose that’s possible). I’m speaking of a prayer I would pray asking for help with understanding. How can I better understand this person sitting across the dinner table from me?
Now, regardless of what you believe about prayer (or even a “higher power” for that matter), the idea of prayer as meditating on what is important to you is critical to staying focused on what IS critical to you. I believe prayer has power that can come from outside ourselves, but it also unlocks power that already exists within ourselves at the same time. We effectively, generate our own miracle!
I personally took to praying what is called the blind Bartimaeus prayer fashioned from the bible which is simply what Bartimaeus asked Jesus when they met — let me see. While I’ve always had my physical sight, I’ve certain struggled with the ability to see anything through a lens other than my own. This is what I would need to do if I were to accomplish my goals.
I save the most important for middle. Praying that someone else understand YOU is a futile prayer. The only person we can change is ourselves. Likewise, the only way to get any value out of reading or prayer or even sitting across from someone at the dinner table is having the ability to listen.
One evening my daughter decided to air her grievances with me as a parent. I did what I normally do — I erupted into a self-defensive rage. Believe it or not, that will shut down a conversation ☺. Fortunately for me, she was brave enough to try again. She asked of me only one thing: just listen.
As she drove over to my house I — prayed. Just listen, just listen, just listen. It worked. You know what I found out? She was right about some things. I had failed as a parent in some ways that deserved an apology. Do you know what happens when a father listens to, then agrees with his daughter? They have a better relationship. That’s the goal.
The next thing I did is I began to write about these experiences. Writing is simply cathartic. It’s a way to communicate what otherwise could be a challenge. It helped me reflect upon what had been driving my own destructive and divisive behavior — shame. I ended up publishing that as a book in order to, in part, accomplish item #5 below.
Helping people is the grand conclusion of why we are here on planet earth. It’s almost impossible to dislike someone who has helped you. Perhaps it’s why Proverbs insists we give food and drink to our enemies who are hungry and thirsty! I published my book, even though the details of my life are somewhat embarrassing, in order to help people.
All that is well and good, but the best help you can offer is what the Proverb suggests — individual people in individual need. I screwed up many things in life and made my share of regrettable decisions (just read my book!!), but those who I have helped in even small (but material) ways along the way have offered me grace, patience, and forgiveness. They have come to give me the benefit of the doubt and having given me a chance to become a better person.
We should drop everything to help the person who disagrees with us the most. This is the only way to get the right to be heard and to soften the walls that confine us. My preaching instructor said this to me: people don’t care what you know till they know you care.
Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?
Understand our own level of self-hatred. This is not simple because we don’t want to look at it. However, our hatred for others is almost always fueled by self-hatred we have to transfer onto someone else. That transference can be small (such as a need to gossip about others) or large (such as fueling racism). But until we get ahold of the fires within, we will never control the fire without.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am optimistic. If I can transform from the raging narcissist I was to someone who actually has the will and capacity to listen to someone else anything is possible!!! ☺
If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?
I wouldn’t tell young person anything until I had first listened to them and helped them. I wouldn’t preach them a sermon, I would do my best to show them one.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Richard Rohr. I would like to thank him for his work in helping me become the person I am particularly as it pertains to seeing that “everything belongs” as the title of his book suggests. Richard’s mind is able to release the idea of binary thinking that has gotten us into this mess and embrace a world much broader and deeper than most are able to envision. How could I pass up an opportunity to also ask that mind some questions??!!
How can our readers follow you online?
rickpattersonconnects.com or facebook @ rickpattersonconnects
This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!