The People Chose Empathy: And Why Some People Need Our Empathy More Than Others

I was listening to spiritual teacher Tosha Silver’s call this morning. She said that she wept at Biden’s acceptance speech when she saw someone in the audience holding a sign that said, “The People Chose Empathy.” It made me realize that this election really was about empathy. Our empathy was bigger than our greed, self-interest, and privilege (only slightly bigger, but bigger enough to get Biden/ Harris the win.) But let’s talk about empathy- and why some bids for empathy are more important than others right now. Yes, we all deserve empathy. And when we’re suffering, our suffering deserves compassion. But let’s look at two lists of ways people in our country say that they’re suffering- and unpack how they’re VERY different.

People Who Really Need Extreme Empathy

Many of us voted with our empathy because we care that:

  • Almost a quarter million vulnerable, elderly, and often marginalized people in this country have died from Covid- and Trump firmly refuses to do anything to stop it
  • In instances in which the victim appeared to pose minimal or no threat to police, Black people are three times as likely to be killed by police.
  • Black people make us 12% of the US population but 33% of the prison population
  • Immigrants and their children are being horrifically treated at our borders, with babies ripped from their mother’s arms (and may never be reunited)
  • Dreamers who were raised in this country are at risk of being sent home and stripped of their entire lives
  • Countless unemployed US people, many of them marginalized, are struck with poverty while Trump refuses to cooperate with another stimulus package, all while he packs the pockets of billionaires who have become richer than ever during the pandemic
  • Muslims in this country have been horribly mistreated during the Trump administration
  • LGBTQIA+ folks could lose their jobs, marriages, and rights
  • Women could lose their right to make reproductive choices about their own bodies
  • People who live in areas vulnerable to recurrent natural disasters related to climate crisis may be in unlivable territory very soon, if our government doesn’t take decisive action to reverse course on environmental disaster

These are life, health, and safety-threatening issues, and if we claim to be spiritual seekers, we must embrace a spirituality big enough to extend our empathy to these suffering citizens. Our empathy must fuel our social justice activism if we want a grounded spirituality that puts our compassion into actions, votes, and policy changes.

People Who Are Not Entitled To The Same Kind Of Empathy

Others are claiming they deserve empathy because:

  • They don’t like wearing masks and insist on having the freedom to wear one or not (No. It doesn’t work that way. You’re not just free in this country to do whatever you want if it hurts other people. Even if a mask brings up old PTSD flashbacks or makes it harder for you to breathe, you still don’t have the right to infect vulnerable, marginalized people just so you can leave the house without a mask. If you don’t like masks, stay home- and then you’re free not to wear one.)
  • They feel entitled to gather in large groups (without masks) so they can get their social needs met. (I get that. I miss large gatherings too, and I fantasize about when I can dance in the MLK, Jr gym with my dance church again. But right now, we’re being asked to make our social circles small, to stay within our “germ bubbles” or socialize outside, with masks and a lot of distance, to make personal sacrifices so the vulnerable can stay alive (because we care about our vulnerable and have empathy for their suffering.)
  • They want us to empathize with how hard it is to sacrifice white (often male) privilege. (I get that it’s hard. I was in a spiritual circle once with an elderly white German man who tearfully confided in us how hard it was to give up one privilege after another during the course of his lifetime. And yes, that sucks. But nobody was ever entitled to those privileges in the first place, so while we can extend empathy to people who don’t like sacrificing privilege, it’s not the same as extending empathy to those on the first list, whose lives depend on our empathy.)
  • They want us to empathize with their right to “medical freedom.” And yes- my whole life- first as a doctor and then as a wellness influencer, I have been teaching about patient autonomy, following your intuition, standing up for your rights as a patient and not giving your power away to medical experts, and using your Whole Health Intelligences (mental, emotional, somatic, and intuitive intelligence) to make wise and personalized medical decisions for yourself and your loved ones. But I also care about public health and have been an activist for health care reform.The truth is that nobody in the United States is going to pin a privileged white person to the ground with a gun to their head and force anyone to get a Covid vaccine! (The same has not always been true for BIPOC, but don’t get me started on that kind of horror.) Vaccines have always been optional in this country. Yes, public health officials try to enforce vaccination by making it mandatory for many public schools, and yes, it’s true that some people can’t afford to home school or pay for private school so they can withhold vaccination from their kids.
  • But the principle of informed consent should be an inviolable medical ethic (for all races, not just privileged whites.) As a society, we do our best to balance personal choice with public health safety, and it’s not easy. I sent my child to a private Waldorf school where many kids did not get vaccinated, but I vaccinated my child- because I care about public health and because my Whole Health Intelligences guided me to do so. So yes, I have empathy for those whose children have experienced vaccine injury. It sucks that the very medicines that save lives also harm some people- and that’s true of all of conventional medicines, not just vaccines. It sucks that preventable medical error is the #3 cause of death in the US. So yes, we need health care reform. But that’s not a good enough reason for someone to withhold empathy from people on the first list as a way to take a stand for “medical freedom” and then demand our empathy with their privileged entitlement.
  • They want us to empathize with Trump, Trump staffers, Trump-loving politicians, and Trump voters. So many are calling for pardoning the President for his many crimes and letting them off the hook for the egregious lack of empathy (for the things on the first list). But it is WAY too soon to extend empathy (especially to ask BIPOC and other marginalized populations to do so) to those who have demonstrated with their words, behaviors, and votes how little empathy they actually have for the people on the first list. (And yes, all beings deserve our empathy, but not until they’ve been made to reconcile with their selfish choices and been held accountable to their dangerous, greedy, narcissistic, self-interested, and sometimes criminal behaviors. Anything else is premature.)

Creating Off-Ramps For Cult Followers

One exception is that I can open my heart and extend empathy to vulnerable people who genuinely believed the lies and fake news of Trump and joined his cult. This article in the Washington Post details how some in the Trump cult feel like “their faith is shaken” ( now that Q’s prophecies have failed to come true. Even as we can try to understand why New Agers might have fallen prey to the cult of Trump, any empathy we extend must come with firm, fierce boundaries and holding people accountable for the harms they have caused with their often abusive behavior. (Read more about holding people accountable here.

Some people are uneducated, lack critical thinking skills, and have been traumatized in ways that make them vulnerable to cult leaders like Trump. And leaving a cult is VERY hard, scary, isolating, and triggering. People in cults hurt people who aren’t in their cult, and sometimes those bridges are burned forever. But if there’s any bridge left, we can gently (and when needed, fiercely) help these people reintegrate into our spiritual communities- with firm boundaries, education, and opportunities for them to admit their wrongdoing. (55% of white women voted for Trump!) We can help these people who joined the cult of Trump off-ramp from the QAnon crazies and nurture them while they get treatment for their traumas and feel the shame of how much empathy they withheld from people more vulnerable than them. But that doesn’t mean we don’t hold them accountable for their abuses either. And make no mistake about it, these QAnon cult members have been abusive to many people, myself included. And it hurts.

We can extend our empathy for the perpetrators of abusive behavior and the people who voted for a President with zero empathy. But let us not allow our empathy to keep us from pressing charges, allowing Trump voters and QAnon supporters to lose social capital, and calling them out on their egregious lack of empathy (for their own traumatized parts and for the traumas of others). Let us hold them accountable for their destructive choices in ways that actually hurt. Consider boycotting the businesses of people in the wellness industries, spiritual communities, yoga culture, and alternative medicine spaces. Let them feel the sting as they lose some of their privilege. I’m all for unity- AFTER we hold perpetrators accountable, they express regret, we engage in collective truth and reconciliation, we make amends to the people we have harmed, and we make policies that protect our vulnerable from EVER being abused by their own President in the way we’ve tolerated in the past four years.

So those are just a few thoughts about why we all deserve empathy (and it starts with empathy for our own wounded parts inside.) But all calls for empathy are not created equal. Some people need our empathy more than others.

Group Healing For Spiritual Bypassing Parts With Lissa & Internal Family Systems (IFS) Founder Richard Schwartz, PhD

If you or anyone you know has spiritual bypassing parts, got lost down the rabbit hole wondering about conspiracy theories, feels bewildered about what happened to the New Age during the past six months, or otherwise is in need of a free group healing, Lissa and Dick Schwartz are hosting a free two-hour group IFS healing session on Zoom on Monday, November 16, 4 pm-6 pm PST. Register free here. All parts are welcome and empathy for all parts will be extended.

Who Not To Follow

*A list of Trump-supporting, QAnon-affiliated, “red-pilled” influencers in the spiritual and wellness communities is listed here. If you want to participate in restorative justice, I recommend unfollowing, unsubscribing, and no longer supporting the businesses of anyone on this list (unless they make apologies, admit their mistakes, do their anti-racism work and speak about it publicly, and do what it takes to re-earn the public trust. Instead, take your business to BIPOC leaders, and let’s use our influence, power, privilege, platforms, and money to start to make things right.



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

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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.