Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Superstitions can be comforting

Superstitions can be comforting to some people

January 2, 2013

Q.OK, so the Mayans were wrong and the world didn’t end. I never believed it would but wow, I was shocked by how many of my friends thought it would happen. So now we’re facing the year 2013. No big deal, I think. And then my friends are all about this is a bad year because of the 13. What’s up with that? Why do so many hotels go from floor 12 to floor 14? Don’t people realize that the pretend floor 14 is really floor 13? And I know a few friends who seem trapped by their superstitions, like they feel they must put on a light switch a certain number of times or enter a room in a certain way every time. What are your thoughts on superstitions like this?

14-year-old male

Mary Jo’s response:

Your question is perfect for the first column of 2013! You made me smile!

Ironically I’m not very superstitious, unless you count the holiday/family traditions my parents taught me that I’m determined to maintain. I wouldn’t label those traditions as superstitions per se, but I do know that I feel both joy and a sense of completion when I cook the same fish dishes on Christmas Eve or make pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day. I don’t really believe that good luck will come to our family if I preserve these rituals, but they’re comforting.

I think superstitions for most people are just that – comforting. I know many young athletes who adhere to strong rituals when competing: wearing the same socks, drinking the same sports beverages at the same time, etc. You’re correct – floor 14 is really floor 13. My mom was born on a Friday the 13th and she always felt that 13 was her lucky number, but many think the 13th is unlucky. I think the year 2013 will be what each of us makes it, regardless of its numerology.

If superstitions begin to rule a young person’s life I think processing with an adult is in order. Obsessive compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations, obsessions or behaviors that make them feel driven to do something (compulsions). Often the person carries out the behaviors to get rid of the obsessive thoughts, but this provides only temporary relief. Not performing the obsessive rituals can cause great anxiety.

Feel free to talk with me about your thoughts on superstition. I’ll also be happy to discuss behaviors that appear to be compulsive. Your friends need to connect with caring adults. Parents can be very supportive when young people have anxiety for any reason. I’m here. Good luck in 2013!

Q.I read the peer educator resolutions from your last week’s column. I wanted to say something to the teen who planned to read about major world religions to decide if living by any of them would work. I am long past adolescence (I’ll be 85 at my next birthday) but that resolution resonated with me. When I was young, exploring possible beliefs was frowned upon. My family were staunch Presbyterians. My father was actually a minister. I was incredibly curious early on. I remember my terror when I checked out a book on Buddhism from the local library. Would my father notice? Would he chastise me? I read that book and then another, eventually making a huge list of eclectic works on different religions that took most of my 20s to complete. I’m happy to say that I eventually spoke with my father (I was in my 30s by then) and found him to be incredibly supportive of my quest.

Through those years, I maintained an active church life. The community afforded me by my church was important even as I searched. When I married late – I was near 40, which didn’t happen much back then – my husband supported me although he, like my family, never deviated from Christianity. Our wedding was held at a Unitarian Universalist Church because that path reflected my thoughts at the time.

Now, here I am, looking back on a fruitful life. I do believe I’ve lived well. And my faith? I’m still unsure, so I suppose that makes me an agnostic. I don’t share that with many, but am writing to encourage the young people you so obviously care about. Good people can produce good works in their lives regardless of whether they follow Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam,or no faith at all. In American culture atheism is often frowned upon but I firmly believe one of our most vital rights is the right to believe, or not believe, in what matters to each of us. During my atheist years ,I remained a thinking, caring individual. I have never required “fear” of punishment to do the right thing. I appear to have rambled on a long way, and I understand if you don’t have space to print all of this email. Please continue to encourage and empower young people. Thank you.

Sign me “Still Thinking!”

Mary Jo’s response:

Thank you for your thoughts and your kind words. I treasure the time I spend with young people and they teach me a great deal. Your lifelong quest is inspiring. How wonderful that you are “still thinking.” I wish you many more fruitful years of life.



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