The youth of today feel a deep need to belong, to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They just happen to be young at a time when the voices clamoring for their attention — the voices seeking to influence, or exclude over differences — are louder, more constant, and more pervasive than at any time in history. From the lunch table at school to hyper-customized tribes that gather online, almost every moment of a young person’s life carries the potential for acceptance or rejection.
At a time in life when they are trying to figure out who they are, young people now encounter a near-infinite number of options for community. And those labeled as loners, the misfits hiding their misery in every school in this nation, often find outlets that leverage their pain and loneliness into a twisted sense of togetherness. They are targeted by groups that paradoxically recruit from a place of division and hatred.
When the happy All-American experience rejects you, when it bullies you and makes your pain a part of its own pleasure, where do you turn? Deep selfhood markers like race, gender, religion and sexual identity become stress points, and youth can easily find themselves recruited into communities with no regard for anything other than growing an ideological army. It’s “us vs. them” wrapped in microaggressions, emojis and memes.
I travel the United States speaking to kids about bullying and self-worth in all kinds of settings, from schools and camps to churches and festivals. My life’s calling is to reach as many as possible with a simple message: You. Have. Worth. The promotion of Dignity is my daily stock in trade, and I am privileged to share my message with many who desperately need to hear it.
In return, I receive something we all need to hear: heartbreaking stories of kids right in the thick of the worst things you can imagine. I listen for to the pain of young people hoping against the odds that someone out there is different than the family that abuses them, the bullies who corner them, the hatred that seems to surround them.
I was speaking in a suburban school in the Midwest recently, and as often happens, officials pointed me to a student in a dark situation. This day it was a teen boy of Pakistani descent who had just returned to school after his stay at a facility on suicide watch. His family had moved to the USA six months earlier, to escape extremism in that part of the world. But sadly, as much as they were enjoying newfound freedoms here, this young man was also encountering horrific bigotry and bullying.
Some of the very things he agreed with his tormentors about were being used as an excuse to violently cast him out of any peer group available. They called him a terrorist. They hit him. They spit on him. They flooded the Internet and put their lies all over social media.
It was a perfect foundation to make him a target for recruitment into an equally evil alternative — to tap into his urge to fight back. It is not easy to look a kid like this in the eye and try to communicate a higher truth. But I believe in the power of standing in the middle of hate coming from all sides and advocating for a better way. I told him that it did not matter what had been done or said to him — it was all lies. He matters. They have not taken his dignity in their attempts to humiliate. I told him that if he gives in and hates back, then in the end, every human being loses. Hatred is the only winner in that scenario.
Lost in all of this is the universal truth that each and every individual — the hated, the haters, the popular, the unwanted — all deserve love. Kids need to know that they are more than the sum of whatever identity funnels they happen to fall into. All deserve Dignity! We have to lift up this ideal until it is heard above the cacophony of separation that clutters school hallways, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
There are many like me who speak to youth about these topics. But as far as I am concerned, it won’t be enough until every youth on the planet walks in a world that contains more advocates than adversaries. They need people from all pursuits, all generations, all ideologies, to give them daily reminders of just how lovable and valuable they are.
We have to give young people something they can trust and carry with them. People who care ought to use their talents, their time, and even their own painful experiences to come together and stand up for those who are struggling to stand up for themselves. Respect for all is a powerful idea – and it is more important than ever to unite and defend the powerless. Speak for the voiceless. Make a difference in the lives of those who are most vulnerable.
It is time to give each and every young person what they have always deserved and so desperately need. It is time for Dignity to win over division.