Israel, Gaza, Sociopathy & Why My Spiritual Beliefs Don’t Comfort Me Like They Used To

Lissa Rankin, MD
11 min readNov 13, 2023

I was in Cape Cod on Saturday teaching an online class about spontaneous healing when I heard the news about the massacre in Israel. My partner Jeff and I were right across the water from my co-teacher of Memoir As Medicine and friend Nancy Aronie and her husband Joel. I instantly thought of them- because they are Jewish. I also thought of my spiritual mentor Rachel Naomi Remen, whose grandfather was a Kaballah rabbi, and the many Jewish doctors who have been part of the same spiritual community with me for 15 years. I thought of the wonderful people at the Boston Shabbat by the Creek that Jeff and I sometimes celebrate with on Saturdays. We’re not Jewish. We’re only chanting in Hebrew with our friends because we left the oppressive fundamentalist Christianity of our youths in sheer disgust over how racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and overall hateful so many people in our churches were. From my experience, the Jews in Shabbat By The Creek are just the opposite.

My next-door neighbor and owner of my dog’s best friend is Israeli, and he was in his home country for a visit when this all broke out. He survived the attacks, but he may not be coming back, I understand. Reservists are being called to active duty. I am already missing the daily morning visits from his dog.

I wonder how all my Jewish friends are doing right now. I’m sure they’re not okay. I don’t have any close Palestinian friends, but if I did, I’d be thinking of them too. So many of us are touched by this faraway tragedy. I am personally close with far more Jews and expatriated Israelis than Palestinians, so I’ll admit that I’m thinking more about my Jewish friends than strangers who are Palestinians, not because I don’t care about innocent Palestinians who have suffered so much atrocity, but just because my lack of personal relationships with Palestinians distances me one cell layer, while I know very well and love dearly dozens of Jews and Israelis.

I haven’t known quite what to say to the Jews, Israelis, and Palestinians in our community here, so I’ve been in silent shock and mourning, like many of you. I’ve just been taking it all in and waiting to comment until I have at least a whiff of clarity in my system. Let me just start by saying my heart sincerely goes out to you all- and I’m so so sorry for the generational and historical wounds that are surely getting triggered big time right now- on both sides of this old/new war.

Yet again, we have proof that what Harvard physician Paul Farmer said is undeniably true:

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”

The sociopathy and narcissism of terrorists, ruthlessly immoral politicians, the young people they radicalize and indoctrinate, and those who commit hate crimes is rooted in the belief that some people matter less and others matter more. The hierarchy of human worth and the oppressive systems of violence that erupt from such injustice go back millennia, from kings and peasants to colonizers and the colonized to humans and the other living beings we think we’re better than. The violence rooted in such hierarchies really is the root of all that’s wrong with this world.

And here we go again…

Tending Our Helplessness

Like I did the day Russia invaded Ukraine, as we all did on 9/11, like I did when I heard about what happened in Rwanda, I cried on Saturday out of helplessness and horror, grief and outrage, powerlessness and despair. I felt devastation at how truly evil sociopathic humans can be towards other innocent human beings. And as much as I stand for and with the innocent Israelis who are fighting for their lives, I also feel sorrow for the innocents in Gaza who are now getting pounded just because there is evil in their midst, even though it’s not their fault they live in the proximity of terrorists.

When my daughter was getting ready for school this morning, she was rescuing a beetle from the kitchen floor to take it outside. When you regularly live among doctors, therapists, humanitarian activists, helping professionals, and teenagers who care about protecting the lives of beetles, it’s hard to relate to or get into the minds of people who dehumanize children and commit hate crimes. It’s also hard, as a privileged person who generally feels safe, to understand how scared you have to get to wind up so radicalized by terrorists that you can butcher other humans. It’s painful for our naïve, trusting young parts that just want to believe there’s good in everybody and that the world is safer than it actually is to imagine all the horror.

[You can ease some of your own helplessness by helping out financially to support organizations in Israel and also humanitarian aid efforts in both Israel and Gaza.]

Spiritual Bypassing Tendencies In Times of Crisis

I know my spiritual bypassing parts get active in times like this. I want to believe it’s a benevolent universe full of good, lovable people- to comfort the scared little ones inside me who become frightened of scary people who do bad things. I want to believe there’s some spiritual answer to why horrifying things happen to innocent people to protect myself from feeling the sheer injustice and randomness of evil. But I no longer believe there is some pithy spiritual solution that can explain massacres and genocides, and that’s unnerving.

I want to believe the souls of Israeli children and other innocent humans came to this Earth School to leave early- for some grand purpose. I want to believe in some heavenly afterlife or auspicious reincarnation rewarding these tortured humans for their unearned suffering. I want to believe that forgiveness is the antidote to hate and that all we have to do is open our hearts big enough and the sociopaths will finally get the love they’re starved for. I want to believe love trumps fear and all we have to do is choose love. I want to believe that if I just meditate for world peace from the comfort of my own meditation pillow, it will somehow help.

But I’ve lost most of the oomph of those comforting beliefs in the shattering of my anti-oppression/ anti-racism work and my IFS trauma therapy. In their absence, I just feel all the feels- the helplessness, the grief, the horror, the terror, and also the fullness of my love, empathy, and compassion for my fellow human beings who I don’t know personally but who are suffering and experiencing terrible fear and loss.

With no spiritual veils to protect me from the feelings, the tears have been right behind my eyes- spilling out here and there and then receding- since Saturday. I feel my human fragility, rather than some sort of grandiose spiritual strength. I feel vulnerable, realizing that life is this uncertain and the state of the world can change in an unpredictable blink. I also feel a strangely comforting closeness to my own mortality as I see others cross out of human existence with so little warning, and it makes me oddly grateful for that which has not yet been lost.

Narcissism, Sociopathy, Power & Evil

My only real remaining belief system is that we all are born with a spark of something beautiful. That flame is ours to either cultivate and shine by doing our healing work- or to let dim because we either avoid doing our healing work and that light gets filmed over with untreated trauma that turns good people into people who hate- or because people lack enough privilege to even have access to healing work. And trauma breeds people who perpetrate trauma.

I do not believe the psychologists who say that sociopaths are born bad or that they’re monsters at their core. I don’t believe in bad babies, only bad parents and traumatizing cultures. I believe sociopathy is as much a trauma symptom as every other mental illness, and all trauma deserves our compassion. I believe victims of oppression and trauma can lose their empathy because nobody extended empathy to them. I believe such victims can be prime targets for radicalization, and they can be unduly influenced to hate by people who have too much power over them.

But at this point in my journey, I think we have to draw the line at personal responsibility and stop trying to explain away the violence or make the senseless make sense. I don’t wish to dehumanize the dehumanizers, but I do choose to withhold much empathy for the perpetrators of hate crimes and save the energy of my empathy for the innocent victims of sociopaths and radicalized terrorists.

I’m not lacking empathy for people who are so oppressed and lacking in power and privilege that they’re vulnerable to radicalization. But I do think that, at some point, we have to accept personal responsibility for the choices we make to dehumanize another person, even if what makes us vulnerable to dehumanizing others is having been dehumanized.

The Darkness Of The Tomb? Or Of The Womb?

In a famous talk, civil rights lawyer, human rights activist, and Sikh American Valarie Kaur asks, “Is this the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb?” She suggests that humanizing people who are hard for us to understand is hard, but it’s like the labor of birth, and it requires us to breathe- and then push.

As a former OB/GYN physician, I know we have to conserve energy when we’re trying to birth something new. We can get compassion fatigue if we try to put ourselves in the shoes of even the most hateful people, so sometimes, it’s okay not to go there, to save our compassion for the victims of oppression and rest between pushing. But it’s worth at least trying to do this kind of humanizing labor, as long as it doesn’t keep us from taking a stand against oppression or letting the perpetrators of violence off the hook.

I’m not siding with Israel or turning against Palestine. I’m not siding with Jews and turning against Muslims. I am siding with the oppressed who decide not to commit hate crimes, even if they might be vulnerable to radicalization too.

Rather than fawning the oppressors with the biggest guns who would commit another Holocaust-like genocide if they could, I side with the ones who did nothing to provoke such intense racial hatred other than be born with Jewish blood. I side with the people in Gaza who did nothing wrong but are getting indiscriminately blown up in schools and hospitals by sociopathic, power-hungry Netanyahu. Just as I didn’t believe 9/11 justified the violence of the Iraq war, I don’t believe killing more innocent Palestinians is justified as revenge. I side with victims of racial oppression, violence, and genocide on both sides of this horrible war, and I pray that humanitarian aid efforts reach those in need on both sides of the border.

No Justice, No Peace

I’m tired of all the people in spiritual circles calling for peace and unity and Oneness. We can’t have peace without justice. We can’t have cooperation, collaboration, and interdependency without accountability. We also don’t stop terrorism by terrorizing innocent people.

For over a year, I’ve been working on an essay called “Out Of Power” that I haven’t published yet. It’s about power and the thirst for it. It’s about unearned privilege and how it ramps up our power but causes us to lose touch with what really matters. It’s about morality- and why we’re playing the wrong game and need to change the whole idea of “winning” or “losing”- at war or in life.

Part of why I haven’t published it is because I suspect a young part wrote it, a utopian part that wants to believe in the human evolution of consciousness, a part that wants to believe humans can survive the mess we’ve made if only we start feeling more empathy and compassion- for our own parts first, and then for everyone else’s. That part believes that it’s a hard sell to ask people to quit trying to dominate each other by asserting might when there are sociopaths out there who have zero empathy for innocent beings who have done nothing wrong. But underneath the doubting, skeptical part lies a hopeful part that believes that if we quit playing the game of power and privilege, we’d gain much more than we’d sacrifice. We’d gain intimacy with people who are different from us, and that would be worth anything we’d lose by giving up some of our power and privilege. But then again, maybe it’s a privilege to even think about loving and extending empathy to strangers you don’t even know if you don’t feel empowered enough to feel safe in the world or protect yourself or your own loved ones- which makes someone ripe for radicalization.

But there I go again, maybe entertaining my sneaky spiritual bypassing parts that want to find some good in all this horror- or maybe tapping into something real and true. I can’t tell, so I won’t publish it yet.

Nature, Community & Gratitude

For now, I’ll just stay with the emotions that move like waves as I sit safely distant from the immediate danger and send my love across the wavelengths and oceans. The owls are hooting out of my window and a flock of migrating birds has taken up roost in the trees in my yard, making for quite the cacophony. Without the protection of spiritual beliefs that may or may not be true but are nonetheless numbing, nature is my church, so this is where I find comfort when times are uncertain. Nature- and community.

I’m taking Frances Weller’s grief ritual leadership training right now, and it’s reminding me that we need vigils and places of group mourning in times like this. We need wailing walls and places where we don’t have to be alone when we feel this sad and scared. We need each other, so we can breathe- and then push.

I appreciate and agree with Valarie Kaur’s response to the atrocities:

“I believe our most powerful response to the horror in Israel and Palestine is to refuse to surrender our humanity. This is demanding labor. But once your eyes are open — you can never again explain away the deaths of children again, like so many are doing right now. And so: I stand with the Palestinian people. I stand against the brutal occupation of Palestine and the ongoing subjugation, assaults, and killings of Palestinian people. I stand against the ongoing antisemitic violence and persecution of Jews, past and present, including the vicious antisemitic attacks right now in the United States. I have been mourning with Jewish friends who have family in Israel hiding in bomb shelters. And I have been mourning with Palestinian friends whose family in Gaza have no shelters to hide in at all. My mourning transcends political agendas. Your mourning can too. This is not about equivalency. The time has come to center the human cost of the conflict above all. Can we stretch our hearts beyond what was previously imaginable? We must if there is to be a world.”

I am also comforted, as I often am, by the poetry of Jeff Foster. So I’ll leave this as a prayer for us all.

“You will lose everything. Your money, your power, your fame, your success, perhaps even your memories. Your looks will go. Loved ones will die. Your body will fall apart. Everything that seems permanent is impermanent and will be smashed. Experience will gradually, or not so gradually, strip away everything that it can strip away. Waking up means facing this reality with open eyes and no longer turning away. But right now, we stand on sacred and holy ground, for that which will be lost has not yet been lost, and realizing this is the key to unspeakable joy. Whoever or whatever is in your life right now has not yet been taken away from you. This may sound trivial, obvious, like nothing, but really it is the key to everything, the why and how and wherefore of existence. Impermanence has already rendered everything and everyone around you so deeply holy and significant and worthy of your heartbreaking gratitude. Loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.” -Jeff Foster

Originally published at https://lissarankin.com.

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Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.