Jeff Zaluda (58) is originally from Connecticut, he has been working as a lawyer in Chicago for the past 35 years. Apart from that he serves as the president of the JCUA, a non-profit that focuses on social justice.
What do you think is the meaning of life?
I have no idea what the meaning of life is, it’s arbitrary, something in the cosmos...
I’m not a believer in a puppeteer god out there that’s creating things, that’s not for me. So I have no idea what the meaning of life is, it just is and here I am, and whether I’m a low form of life in the cosmos, or the highest form ever created I don’t know, I don’t care. It’s fascinating, but… What happens when I’m dead, don’t know, really fascinated by that question. Is there a part of me that continues on, that lives on a different sphere, or plane or manner? I don’t know. I’m not in a rush to find out, but it will be interesting to find out. I suppose.
So I don’t know how to answer that question.
Then what’s the meaning of life for you?
All these questions, it’s a moving target, I would have answered the question differently in different times in my life. I’m almost 59 and I answer this question very differently than I would have earlier. We live in this place, my life is in a place because of where I was born, the choices I made and the opportunities that have been given to me. It’s been this big chase. I think relatively speaking I’ve been successful at that chase. I’m not rich, but I’m certainly comfortable, my kids are doing really well in life. Nice home, good marriage, good job, good partners, respect in the community. And that’s all gratifying, but I don’t know how much meaning… that’s not the totality of meaning. I don’t care about the nicest car, the biggest TV, the nicest house. I don’t wear expensive jewellery. I shop at outlet malls. But that’s not really meaning either. I think at the end of the day, the stuff that makes you feel good, is seeing the impact you had in life on others to make their existence more positive. Be it legal advice, which is fine, or just the actions you take to provide some level of comfort, or wisdom, or benefit to others. There’s much more meaning in that than there is in the “chase”. But the reality is that my success in the “chase” has also in some ways has made it easier to do the other. I don’t know if that’s really true or not. I don’t wake up in the morning and stress about money, my marriage, this gives me mind-space to do other things. And there’s also satisfying yourself not just other people. I do that in variety of classes. I take Hebrew classes, which I find an outlet. That’s my answer today maybe if you’ll ask me tomorrow, I’ll have a different answer.
If you had to give an advice to someone just beginning life, or your younger self, what would it be?
One thing that I think about a lot of late, and you don’t know why different “isms” go to your head at different times, because I’m not sure of where the influences are at any given point. But, you need to own your own life. You seriously need to own your own life.
What do you mean by that?
Meaning that you are always going to have a boss, you’re always going to have a family, you’re always going to have stress, you’re always going to have illness, you’re always going to have health, you’re always going to have this thing or the other, but it’s up to you to take control of that and make it what you will. No one is going to hand anything to you. There’s no gratification when someone hands something to you. And nobody wants to hand anything to you, and if they do I’m not sure they’re doing you a huge favor. They may be giving you a leg up but not doing you a huge favor. And your success in your career is based on the choices you make, not the choices somebody else makes for you. Your success in anything is based on the choices you make. You need to own it. You need to own your choices, you need to be willing to make choices. You need to own your life, whatever that may be and look like.
As a parent I think it's the best thing we did for our children. Like every parent, we were good parents and we were bad parents, imperfect in everything we did. But looking back, with the wisdom of time, the best thing we did for our children was encouraging them to fight their own battles. Encouraging them if they were involved in something to be involved in it. But mostly they needed to make their own choices and follow up with their own choices. We weren’t going to do it for them. If they had a fight with a friend at school or had an issue with a teacher or whatever it may be, they had to deal with it, it wasn’t up to us. We could support them, from the back, but they had to take the lead. If they would be in the school charity committee they would not just go and sit in the back of the room, do something about it, ownership. We gave our kids protection, we gave them values, all that, but I think that the greatest value we gave them as I look back at who they are in life now, is the value that they needed to make it happen for themselves.
I know the concept of injustice is important for you. Why do you think there’s so much injustice in the world, and what can we do as individuals?
I wish I had an answer, I think the answer in my mind, to me, and this dates back to when we first started putting up the first fences as an agrarian society. People have this notion that there are winners and losers, and I’m going to be a winner and there’s going to be losers. I choose to believe that we can have a system of win-win. But people are fearful any time they think about it in those terms, that they’re going to have to give something up. I choose to believe, maybe naively, that one plus one can be more than two. Rather than just two, and we’re fighting over how much of that two we have. The answer is not to exclude others, it is not to build fences, in my mind, the answer is two-fold. Number one, take ownership on your own life and stop having somebody else run it for you. And number two given these facts on the ground (globalization, automatization), what can I do to embrace that.
This whole idea of winners and losers, and then it becomes so ego driven, in my mind, if I become simple simple simple, that is why there’s injustice in the world. Now what can you do about it?
I think I’m learning a lot over these couple of years, not by volunteering, but because people have been hitting me over the head with this, people I have been hanging with in the last couple of years, I’ve become very aware, consciously aware rather than unconsciously aware. How the education system, the justice system, the housing system, and the health system and the voting systems, all these systems we have in the united states, the pillars of society, are in large part, by design or otherwise (I think by design but) pull people back. They’re designed to perpetuate a power structure, and I benefit from that power structure tremendously, I wouldn’t be as successful as I am in my life and my career but for that frankly white supremacist power structure that was built in the United States, and I never gave it any thought until the last couple of years, and now I’m giving it a lot of thought and just thinking how I behave in that system, how do I talk, how do I think, what shouldn’t I be upholding, or should be upholding.
I can impact it through my life by, for example, the type of work that JCUA does, to organize for systemic change. If the policing structure is designed, maybe not obviously but in effect, to perpetuate a second class of citizens, which is largely brown, or to provide less services, less trust, less respect of life, of certain sectors of society, then we need to systemically change that police system to get rid of that differentiation, between how they police in Lincoln Park and South Shore…
Many people see all these challenges in the world, and a lot of them feel helpless, that they can’t do anything…
That’s utter bullshit. It is. Because maybe no individual by himself or herself, themselves, can fully effect change. There’s only one Gandhi in a generation, only one MLK in a generation, etc. There’s only one Hitler in a generation as well, although it seems there are more Hitlers than Gandhis in the world… Those people are rare, I’ll never be Gandhi (too bad it would have been awesome...), but working with others number one, number two, engaging, controlling my own behaviour consciously can effect change. How I engage my community, how I think who my neighbours are, how broad I choose to make my community, where I volunteer, who I work in coalition with. All of these things, it could be an infinite list, but all those things could have impact. You see somebody struggling across the street and you help him. Stand up for a pregnant woman in the “L” ok? That maybe a small act that has a direct benefit for one person, but maybe some idiot 20-year old kid sees me do that, it gets him thinking, huh… ok? So you don’t know. So, anybody who uses that, that’s an excuse for sitting on your ass and doing nothing.
As a lawyer, what kind of values are you trying to bring into practice?
It depends who I’m dealing with, if I’m dealing with clients… I do a fair amount of litigation, but I’m not a crazy (pounding on his chest) chest pounder litigator, I am zealous in my advocacy, and I may be difficult in getting to resolution at times, but I am always looking for resolution, and I’m always talking with my client about “Is it worth it?”, “is the relationship that you’re blowing up is worth the results you are going to get?”. I also deal a lot with families so that discussion is very important. Is that extra few dollars worth what you’re going to have to pay in emotions and relationship and money and time and mind-space, to achieve. Those are the type of questions I would ask.
So, how would you define the value you are trying to realize by doing this?
I can answer that in a few different ways. One is that money is not to be all and end all. But getting beyond that. How does one define justice? I was taught that justice and mercy are two poles and you can’t have pure justice and mercy, you can’t have pure mercy and justice. So the question is, if both mercy and justice are values we believe in, and I assume they are, where on that continuum should we be ending up? And, maybe I err a little bit towards mercy in some ways, because when you’re fighting for justice then you’re also fighting for mercy for those who had the injustice done to them.
Do you agree with that perception that Justice and Mercy are two poles, or is it possible to integrate them?
I believe that pure justice and pure mercy are poles and we have an obligation to integrate them, we have no choice but to integrate them. Otherwise it would be an impossible world to live in. But I would argue that finding that balance, maybe that’s part of the meaning of life. That’s an example, because I’ve come to understand that purity tests are a real mess. Pure justice, pure mercy, pure opportunity, pure race blindness, you name it, fill in that blank with anything. In my out of the office work, I work with a lot of young people in their 20’s, who are coming out of school, they’re very idealistic, very progressive (although I think their progressiveness is leaning towards fascism, but that’s a different discussion), but the problem is that there’s someone 25 years old, really progressive, really into it, really into justice and so on. They’ll look at me and say “white Jewish lawyer, living in Lincoln Park… There’s no room for you in my life, you perpetuate the problem, you’re the problem”, with no acceptance, with no ability to sit back and say to themselves “what are the thousands and thousands of influences in his life that has led him to this point? Which of those I can sympathize with, which of those I can relate to, which of those I reject, which of those really shaped him? wow he’s really complex.” There’s no acceptance. As I get older I’m more open to the idea that every human being is remarkably complex because of the unpredictable influences and the unknown influences on their lives. And the older you are the more you are. The blue collar worker in Altoona Pennsylvania who votes for Donald Trump, which in my mind is completely and utterly against his self-interest, when I’m just being angry I hate that person and I have no sympathy for that person and I hope they have to live on the street. But when I sit back and I say to myself “how did they get to that point in their lives, that they have given up all hope and they’re living off fear, and they don’t see a future, and they don’t know how to move beyond the place they are now.” Then you begin to sympathize with that person a little bit, you begin to want to listen to them rather than talk at them, and that means that I accept, there’s no ultimate truth, there’s no ultimate right, because without knowing what makes that person that person, I cannot impose my polar vision of what justice is, or my polar vision of what mercy is, because it may not have meaning to you based on what you come up through in your own life. Both our jobs are to find where it should be, you for you, me for me, then we begin to talk and understand why you’re here and I’m here. That’s ok, you don’t have to be here, but we have to understand, we have to have a relationship, a willingness to have a relationship, and once we have a willingness to have a relationship even with your archenemy. Even with a person you say “I have nothing at all in common with that person”, then you could begin to find out (it gives us more meaning in life, to go back to your first question) and you begin to find out how we resolve things. What I’ve come to understand more and more and more is that the complexity of individuals, of relationships, are such that I can’t understand them, therefore I can’t judge them. I can judge behaviours that are harmful to others, but even then I should try to understand why. There are certain acts that are unforgivable (rape, murder) but that doesn’t mean I don’t have an obligation to understand what led this person to that. Some people are just psychopaths, I accept that, or just cruel. I think Donald Trump is a psychopath, to be honest with you. He doesn’t care what he says, who he says it to, or how he treats other people. There seems to be no emphatic gene in his entire body, it’s incredible to me. He says he’s empathic towards the people in Altoona, but in reality he’s not, it’s just words, it’s lies. But I choose to understand that he grew up in an environment, and began doing business in an environment, and hung out with people who were all about winners and losers, winners and losers. “Take what you have and build it, and don’t worry about whose back you’re stepping to get there.” Why he was taught that? I don’t know. It’s a shame that he was. I think that Barack Obama, for all his faults as president, and there were many, was the opposite. As a human being he was about the in-gathering, he was about how to make one and one more than two. He was a failure in many ways. But I think that was his mindset: how do we create a larger middle. Donald trump is not about how to create a larger middle. That’s me. That speaks to me. It speaks to me in a more global sense, in a political sense that I believe that the larger your middle is - middle class, middle education - the more peaceful your country is, the less likely you are to engage in war, the more likely you are to be charitable, all of it.
Middle in the sense of a conceptual space where more people can connect?
That, yes, and the willingness to have a dialogue and understanding. To have food security, to have educational security, to have health security. I don’t need to be the richest guy in the world, but I need to know I can come home at night, that if my kid is sick there is something I can do, I need to be able to put a meal on the table, even if I’m a subsistence farmer in Bangladesh, I need to know that the next monsoon is not going to ruin my life. I need to know that someone, my neighbour, my leader, people in the next state, people in the country, are willing to look at me and say: “you’re a complex human being let me try to understand what made that complexity, even if at the end of the day I disagree with everything you have to say and think, at least I moved this much from there.”
An experience in life that has made you a better human being.
One example, I’m sure there are many. My father, who’s been dead now for 28 years, when I was a kid, he was always involved in something, whether it was some local commission in town, a larger charity, or something Jewish, or… there was hardly ever a day a week when he was home at time for dinner at night, because he was at some meeting or another. Always, from my first memories, till I assume to the time he dies, certainly through my childhood. That was incredibly impactful for me as I look back.