Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q. I’m just a teen and I’m troubled. It feels like a lot of people are just starting to accept the world as one full of hate. What can people like me do?

– 17-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: You’re not “just a teen”. Your voice is just as important as an adult’s voice; your concerns are just as real as mine.

May I tell you a story? When I was a child, my parents taught me about the Holocaust. They rented rooms from a Jewish family when they were first married. Mama described European refugees spending nights at this family’s home. When they moved to their own house, my parents maintained friendship with their former landlords. They learned of Nazi atrocities by word of mouth, leaving them with an intense feeling of human kinship and a deep belief in the importance of standing with those in need. My parents were not bystanders – people who watched others get hurt and did nothing. They did what they could to help, including teaching me.

I was younger than you are now. I remember asking them a question very similar to yours: “Why do people hate? What can I do?”

Their response was delivered with a gentle force; I knew it was not casual advice. I was told hate could only conquer love if people didn’t work together to remove it. Love, they said, would always win. My job was to view other people as worthy, regardless of our differences. My task, they told me, was to live my life with empathy and compassion. My role was to speak up when I saw evil and use any power I had to stand with those who were powerless. My papa was a gardener; he was fond of the saying “bloom where you are planted.” In other words, we don’t need to go far from home to make positive changes. We make changes in our own circle of influence.

We now live in a culture where news is instantaneous. Unlike my parents, who received information about concentration camps in bits and pieces from real people who’d escaped persecution, we see images and hear voices in real time. There’s a sense of urgency, a feeling that bad things are happening 24/7. The truth is, hate and love have always existed. Human beings conceptualized Auschwitz; a human wrote Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. We are capable of great horror as well as magnificent contributions to life. We always have a choice. Our job is to decide where we stand and do what we can to make a difference in our own lives.

You can do many things to make the world better. Start with those you know, with people in school, and with members of your family. Be kind. Be respectful to all people. If you witness bullying, be a defender and protect the person being bullied. Be honest. Model human decency. Be an active member of society. Vote. When you’re older, run for local office. Serve on school boards and city council. Stand for what’s right. Use your privilege for good.

Don’t accept hate, but strive for acceptance, respect and dignity for all the people you meet.

Young people like you matter. Listen to the voices of our peer educators – young people just like you. Their advice is specific and comes from courage. Thank you for writing and for trying to make your part of the world a better place.

Peer Educator response: There have been other times in history when things have been getting worse and worse and other young people who have felt this way. Things are always changing; we’re in the midst of another big change. Here is our advice:

  • Keep on loving and being you.
  • Educate people who are open to learn.
  • Teach younger people in your life to love so they are not stuck in a mindset of hate.
  • Try extra hard to be welcoming and kind.
  • Listen and hear people.
  • Try not to become numb to sad things that happen.
  • Recognize patterns of hate and talk about them with others.
  • Hug people more.
  • Look at art.
  • Keep finding things to laugh about.
  • Let people know when they say something really funny.
  • Hang out at the library, even if you don’t check out books.
  • Try to be your own positivity.
  • Spread your positive thoughts to others.
  • Don’t let hateful things drag you down, because no matter what happens, hate isn’t really that deep.
  • Keep on going. Not giving up is a strong message.
  • Don’t follow hate in the world.
  • Be your own leader and know what’s right.
  • Find peace in faith if you have one.
  • Stick together. Stand up for those who are not as privileged as you.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email podmj@healthyteens.com

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