Reaching Far Across The Aisle

Dear Mike Pence,

You and I don’t have much in common. I’m a liberal Democrat, an LGBTQ+ ally, a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, a believer in a woman’s right to choose. Still, we share a big problem, so like it or not, we’re on the same team. Our country is dangerously divided, and it’s up to me and you and each and all to help. I was a therapist for over twenty years, and a basic tool of my trade was empathy. From that foundation, I’m reaching out to you, far across the aisle.

Empathy is defined not by a single point, but by a spectrum. One end of that spectrum holds the folks who are naturally empathic, sensing what others feel with depth and accuracy, knowing intuitively how to respond. On the other end of the spectrum are people entirely lacking the capacity for empathy, no clue about others’ feelings, and don’t care. Most folks land in the middle. Of that middle group, some need to go through an experience in order to empathize with others going through a similar experience. They are capable of empathy, but only when they themselves can identify with the experience.

Mr. Pence, on the spectrum of empathy, where are you?

Through the years, I’ve viewed your career with sadness, outrage, fear, disgust. But on January 6, 2021, you surprised me. You took a stand, and refused to try to overthrow a fair election. You paid a steep price. A mob stormed the Capitol, hunting for you, chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” During the insurrection, your president never checked on your safety.

Powerful experiences, including trauma, can change people. A mob storming the Capitol and chanting their intention to kill — you don’t need an advanced degree in psychology to know that meets the criteria for a “powerful experience, including trauma.” So I wonder, did that experience lead to any changes in you?

Mr. Pence, nobody should ever go through what you went through on January 6, 2021. However, now that it’s behind you, I have a question. When you look back on that day, hiding in fear, pack-mentality-rage erupting and infiltrating the sacred ground of your workplace — have you thought about the fear you have caused in the course of your political career? 

Every LGBTQ+ student who was targeted and bullied — fearful of being hurt or even killed— terrified to go to school because of pack-mentality-rage — have you thought about them? How about their parents — having no choice but to send their children to school, knowing that they’d be targeted, in part because you paved the way for hatred to run wild against their kids? Can you feel empathy for those students, for those parents, now that you’ve known that same fear? 

How about the Black trans folks who have been murdered, because people felt it was okay to target Black trans folks, just because they’re Black trans folks? When Donald Trump turned against you, a powerful person who withdrew his protections, how did you feel? Can you understand that you’ve made many others feel exactly the same way when you, a powerful person, advocated withdrawing their protections?

And what about your insistence that “All Lives Matter” replace “Black Lives Matter”? Of course, all lives matter, but that’s not the issue here. The point is that Black lives are often treated like they don’t matter. When your president and his mob decided that your life didn’t matter, how did you feel? In that moment, the mob didn’t chant “Hang Them All!” They chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” Can you understand, in that moment, the difference between “All Lives Matter” and “Mike Pence’s Life Matters”? Now, having survived that experience, can you understand the difference between “All Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter”?

Take a pause, Mr. Pence. Imagine going through your trauma not once, but every day as you go to school, as a child or an adolescent on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Imagine fearing every minute that you’d be targeted with verbal abuse, or assaulted, or murdered in cold blood, because of the color of your skin or your sexuality or your gender identity. I’ll bet you never thought you’d share an experience of such emotional breadth and depth with people you’ve targeted. But like it or not, here you are.  

Before I began my second career as an author, I was a psychotherapist for over twenty years. Part of my job was to help clients find their hidden strengths — the kernels buried deep, camouflaged and cocooned. When these pieces reveal themselves, even just a glimpse or a flicker, the patient has a choice — learn and grow and build on those kernels, or run back to the old ways. Change, no matter how healthy, is scary and difficult. Healing means choosing an uncharted path, and always involves holding yourself accountable for your choices. These road-not-taken moments are pivotal points in therapy. The patient either enters a phase of tremendous possibility, or quits treatment. 

Through most of your career, Mr. Pence, you’ve treated many of your fellow humans as less-than, unworthy, disposable. But recently, a kernel of strength and decency emerged when you stood up to your president. On January 6, 2021, our country watched you undergo a powerful experience, a trauma. Can you learn and grow from your experience? Can you build on that kernel of integrity, forced out of hiding? Can you wrap your hands around it, own it, bring it into the light? Can you use it to forge a path into a new level of empathy?

Our country is broken and hurting, divided and scared, angry and sad — also hopeful and strong and ready to heal. It’s a pivotal moment for the United States of America, as we enter a phase of tremendous possibility. Like it or not, it’s also a pivotal moment for you, Mike Pence. 


Amy Kaufman Burk

Doctor of Mental Health


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