Food & Fitness After 50: The Urgency of Awareness: How Understanding Yourself Can Help You Understand Others

This isn’t my usual post; it deals with neither food nor fitness, but it might just help with mental fitness.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a training session at work or in your community designed to make you an effective team member? You know the kind of meeting…. writing on big sheets of paper stuck to the conference room wall, wordsmithing mission and vision statements, or trust exercises with colleagues. Let’s face it. For most of us the sessions were a snooze fest.

Well, not so with an amazing presenter I heard earlier this year. Jodi Pfarr is not your typical workshop leader. For the past 20 years she has been helping individuals, organizations, and communities understand their place in the societal system and how it impacts every aspect of their lives. Her humor and authenticity shine through. I encourage you to watch her website videos to experience her style. Jodi’s new book, The Urgency of Awareness, can help us be more effective in all spheres of our lives by getting to understand ourselves and our place in the societal system. I asked Jodi some questions about how we can apply this to our lives and why it is so urgent.

Question: When I attended your workshop, you had the group start by looking at 18 pairs of triangles…each pair showed one triangle pointing up and one pointing down. We were to circle the triangle in the pair that represented us. The upward pointing triangles represents what society normalizes. Can you explain what normalization means?

Our societal system is made up of us as individuals, but also by organizations, communities, and policies. And, our societal system normalizes one thing or one group over another. When something is normalized, let’s use the example of being right-handed as the normalized group, the people in that group get benefits that they don’t even realize they get. But, just ask a left-handed person and they can tell you the world is made for right-handers. Even the language we use reflects the normalized group. “Right” is associated with good things, “right hand man” for example, vs “left” as in “having two left feet.”

So, understanding if you are in the normalized group can help you become more aware of how society is geared toward that group and not another group. You get benefits from being in the normalized group even if you don’t recognize it. When you recognize that fact you can be more effective at listening to people and understanding them.

Question: Polices change over time so doesn’t that help equalize things for the group that is not normalized?

Polices do change to help move toward equality, but it can take a very long time and the effects of normalization live on. I like to use the example of South Africa. During apartheid, the white minority was normalized over the majority black population. After apartheid was overthrown, South Africa’s policies changed but inequality in wages, land ownership, and standard of living for blacks remain. Whites, being the normalized group, continue to benefit even after policies change.

Question: We all make assumptions about people, whether it is judging the food choices people make or the health care decisions they make. Why is that unproductive?

When we are not aware of being in a normalized group we act out of our own experiences. We know something based on our experiences and we put our experiences on other people. As you might image, being middle class or upper middle class is normalized and the underclass, the working poor, or those living in poverty are not normalized.

As a person who grew up in poverty, I saw firsthand that food takes on a different meaning from those who grew up middle or upper middle class.  Folks who grow up in poverty talk about food in terms of quantitiy….do I have enough to eat? If you are in the middle class and you had enough to eat the question becomes does it taste good? And, if you are wealthy, food is judged on appearance….is it pretty? Those who didn’t grow up in poverty question the food choices that are made by those who grow up in poverty…. why aren’t “those people” eating organic foods or fresh fruits and vegetables? We have a hard time understanding where others are coming from based on our experiences being in the normalized group. Seeing where we are coming from instead of assuming where others are coming from is more effective than the truth as we see it.

Question: Do you think people need more empathy?

Empathy is an overused word, in my opinion. Saying you have “empathy” can be just one more to do item on a checklist.  I think understanding is a more useful way to look it. When you understand you can move to ownership to have a better understanding of yourself. It allows reflection and can help you understand that there are different experiences and yours or mine isn’t the “best” experience, it is a different experience. When people start becoming aware, they can be more effective listeners, and everyone wants to be heard. It can be uncomfortable to realize you are part of a normalized group that has received benefits…some people feel guilty and some want to “fix” it. You don’t have to feel bad, just be aware and have understanding as a first step.

Question: Those between the ages of 18 and 65 are in the normalized group. I am over the age of 65 so I am not in the normalized group. How do you think older adults fit into the current societal system?

We need older people and their wisdom to lead us, now more than ever. Older folks have more experiences and their perceptions should be shared with younger people. We need older folks to lead and teach lessons to younger kids.  As I said earlier, everyone wants to be heard and feel listened to so older folks can start being more effective in their communication with younger people by not judging the nose rings and tattoos! Remember, one experience is just different, not better or worse than yours.

Question: In a word, what do you think we need right now from each other?

Grace, we need grace.

I found many definitions of the word “grace,” but I think the one that comes closest to what Jodi meant is “quality or state of being considerate and thoughtful, or courteous goodwill.” The world could all use more grace right now.

After hearing Jodi and reading her book it struck me that the difference between Jodi’s approach and all the other training is an internal focus versus external focus. By focusing on discovering awareness within ourselves we can be more effective with others. In Jodi’s words, “We have not learned to connect the understanding of how our unique individual experiences cause us to see and navigate the world differently.” Her book and teachings can help us connect with each other and our communities more effectively.

Dr. Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Along with Dr. Bob Murray, she is the author of Food & Fitness After 50.

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved