I met Ari through his wife, Lisa, at the end of the year show I had this past December. He and I only chatted for a moment, but Lisa mentioned she was going to refer Ari to the project then. I arrived at Ari's office on a very wintery Valentine’s Day and as we chatted we could see the snow falling outside - quite romantic, really. As is often the case, we talked for quite some time before turning on the recorder. I often wish I could share that part of the conversation, but doing so would inevitably change the course. Anyway, Ari and I covered many topics in the interview and you should get a good sense of how it went. Things get pretty real towards the end. Ari’s got a huge heart and a deep capacity for empathy. I enjoyed talking with him and getting to know him and I am so glad to introduce him to you here.
ACT: Who are you and how would you describe yourself?
AH: Well, my name is Ari Halpern. How I describe myself - I guess I have a How should I describe myself? and How is someone listening to this - what do I want them to hear? Or do I want to go deeper of how I want to describe myself and how I actually feel? It can be a multitude of things. I'm a father and a husband, probably first and foremost and most importantly. And then, I have a professional career. I'm a lawyer. I'm a friend. I've thought a lot about lately just the value of friendship. I'm Jewish, so that's a big part of my identity. Not necessarily religiously, but culturally - community-wise. Myself, like many people, I'm many things and depending on the day and depending on how I feel, how I would describe myself could vary. That's a very vague answer.
I'd like to add, too - I'm a son of parents. And I think I've been even more acutely aware of that presently with the health concerns of my parents and the aging process and mortality. And just really trying to value that relationship and be as present in that relationship with my parents even though they're up in Washington State. But that has been at the forefront, as well, in the past multiple months but even the last few years of what they've gone through. What can I be for them? How do I see myself as a son for them? And how I see myself as a parent to my kids versus my parents and how we are together.
ACT: I want to be able to ask this in three words - what concerns you? - but it just doesn't work. I'm not really looking for you to say “racism” or some other large issue. What I want to know is what makes you sad as you make your way through this world? What breaks your heart, gets under your skin - whatever you want to use as the agitator phrase - and then what motivates you to do something about it?
AH: I would say a lack of connection between people. There's many concerns I have that could be those big concerns, whether it's who's on the supreme court and federal judges and what is immigration policy? I could glom on to any of those, but I think my more global/national concern is the lack of connection between people who have divergent views or perceive each other as having divergent views. I have a concern about people being in their bubbles of thoughts - people with the similar thoughts, similar feelings, the same approaches to life and what they think is important - and then the other bubble where people might be very different things. And these two bubbles are bumping into each other, but there's not a true dialogue and connection and communication. And I think there's a big break down and that's what concerns me.
Recently I was speaking to someone and they taught there is fear and there is love. And I think that when you're acting out of fear, things get closed off - it's really hard to love. You can't love if you're acting out of fear. If you want to say sides - if there's two sides - I think both are acting out of fear. How are they gonna be able to find the love for the other - if we call it the other - if they're closed off by so much fear? And I know, personally, I act out of fear, as well. I have to truly question myself, Am I doing things out of fear or am I doing them out of love? And it's a huge shift - individually, as individual communities, as a nation, as the world. What can I do? We can only do what we can do each day. And some of us, obviously, have a bigger platform and our voice is heard by more than other people.
When I'm interacting with kids and my wife and my siblings and my parents and my friends, am I acting out of fear or am I acting out of love? I think when you act out of love, it opens up a lot more doors. Then you can talk to folks who may feel differently, who believe differently, and that's where we can maybe get this connection back. Whether it's social media and you only go to certain social media and you ignore the other or you blast the other on your own social media - and I'm not in the social media world at all, really. But that would be my concern - is how do we get this connection back between people? Especially people who may not be that much different but perceive each other as very different.
ACT: What do we mean to each other as individuals - you and person X, Y, or Z - as you make your way through life?
AH: Well, to go on the vein that I was just on, I think there's a lot of dehumanizing of the others. And so, I think we might look at our individual circle and feel as though they mean a lot to us and that these other folks who we don't cross paths with - but have a lot of feelings and thoughts about - being dehumanized. I don't think that's healthy. And I think people are losing their view of humanity of others. On both sides. Neither side is fully 100% guilty and the other side is innocent.
So, how do we find the humanity in every person we interact with? And it's easy to sit here and say these things and to pontificate and to say this is how it should be done when you walk out your door in the morning or you log on or you're emailing or you're talking on the phone or you're interacting with folks at the store who are helping you. It's a lot bigger step to do. And we're all human. And we're all fallible. And we're all just trying to make our way. But how do we carve out to make our way? Going back to that love piece…
ACT: What does it mean for you to be one of those fallible humans and to be part of such a vast community with so many differing opinions and agendas? And why is it important to you?
AH: You only live once, right? And you only have yourself and your brain and your body, which is completely distinct from everyone else's and unique. As a parent, my kids - seven and 10 years old - are gonna go off into the world and we'll always be connected, but I guess the most important thing is what am I going to leave with them? And what am I modeling to them? And I can sit there and talk with them and tell 'em how they should be, but really, they're gonna be watching me and I'm modeling it to them. Not when we're sitting there having me tell them how they should be and how I should be. But how they perceive me with others. How they perceive me with Lisa, my wife. How they perceive me when they're at my office and I'm meeting with clients and interacting with, you know, my co-workers. I've been melded by what I observed subconsciously - consciously and unconsciously - [in] my upbringing and so are they. So, that's where it's the most important is what are we passing on? Because life's temporary. And then, what are they gonna pass on to their kids or their friends or people they interact with on a day-to-day basis? So, I guess that's why it's important - what are we gonna leave in terms of our legacy? Whether it's one person that we live with or many, many people. Again, I don't have a platform - I don't need a platform - but others have very large platforms and what are they gonna leave?
ACT: Do you have any thoughts on why there's such - in our culture, anyway - an aggressive push toward selfishness and greed and not really considering others and future generations? I guess that's a pretty wide generalization, but it seems like the things that are being encouraged aren't really considering one's role in it at all, they're just kind of considering one's role. And then, is your example for your daughters enough to change that?
AH: Well, I guess, to take a step back and really try to take a global look - are we are all being driven by greed? Is that true? Is that a true assessment? I don't know. The whole advertising thing I can't ever really wrap my head around - I should buy this; I shouldn't buy that. And it can be so subliminal that it's disconcerting. But at the core, even if someone's doing something that's perceived as greedy or doing business practices that are unethical, what does that person want at their core? Probably similar to what anyone else wants: love, support, comfort, connection. I mean, I just think it's really easy to be judgmental. I have a Facebook account, but I don't know that I've checked it for years. I don't think I've added to it for years. But I have a concern when I do happen to look at Facebook and see how great everyone is doing - if we're putting all the political stuff aside that might be on there. It's kind of keeping up with the Jones'. Why [is] their family just perfect and happy and their kids are thriving? Okay, well, what's going on with my family? And I just think it can lead someone down a road of comparison and judgment as opposed to, Okay, what do I need? What does my family... what works for me and my community?
And as the father of two girls who are not yet teenagers, but stuff I've read - podcasts, etc. I've heard - I have a deep concern about how teenage girls... are they gonna be comparing themselves and are they gonna be seeing these images and are they gonna... how will that affect them? And does that lead to depression and body image? Deep concerns there. But I can only control so much in terms of what my kids will be exposed to. And Lisa and I can only set so many parameters. But we can set an example and we can be there for them when they need us - if and when they need us - to feel comfortable coming to us if they have concerns, etc. So, where do you want to spend your time? How much time do you want to spend trying to make change outside of your family? 'Cause there's only so many hours and time in the day for these connections. And where do you want these connections to be? And I don't think there's any right answer. Maybe there's wrong answers, too. (Laughs) There are wrong answers. But we can only do so much. And you have to take care of yourself first. You can't take care of anyone if you're not taking care of yourself first. And I can sit here and say that - I'm often not very good at taking care of myself. You know? And so it's much harder to take care of someone else or allow someone to take care of you if you're not taking care of yourself.
ACT: Do you have a sense of purpose or a compulsion to live with intention? And do you feel a responsibility to affect positive change?
AH: Personally, I was instilled through my family of origin - my parents, especially; my grandparents - with a duty to the community. A duty to help others. A duty to volunteer. You said you didn't like the work privileged, but I think it would have been hard for me to fail with all the support that my family of origin gave me. And so, as cliché as it may sound, I feel like there's a duty to help others who may not have had the advantages that I was given - educationally, community-wise, assistance with going to school, having a teacher and an attorney as parents continually modeling volunteerism and helping those who are more disadvantaged. So, I think I have a strong duty. Now, I think I have to stop at times and say, Am I coming to try to help people out of fear or an obligation? Or am I coming truly through my heart because it's what I want to do? So I think I have to take a step back and be honest - Why am I doing this? And is it fully genuine? Because I don't want it to come across as condescending or demeaning by any stretch. Not that I don't want it to come across - I want it to be genuine. From my heart. I think then you create more connections and you'll be able to open up and operate out of that love versus the fear.
ACT: Do you have anything that you'd like to ask me?
AH: I mean, we could go down the list of questions and I could ask you. We talked for quite a while prior to turning on the recording. I guess I would pick one question - what is your biggest concern? And again, not just glomming onto one issue - either more specifically or more generally - and what can we do about it?
ACT: As you can imagine, I try to have my own answers for these things. And then, of course, as you heard me say earlier, I have quite a lecture about not answering this one from the heart. And I've been giving this a lot of thought lately. What concerns me - what directly impacts me every day (and I'm sure this says a lot more about me than it says about whoever the perpetrator of the action is) - is, I guess what it's come down to, is a disregard in general for others. I encounter it in many different ways, but the ones that really jump out at me tend to involve traffic. But I can only assume that it goes deeper. A failure to use one's blinker seems to really get under my skin. Talking on the phone and driving. Talking on the phone through your ear buds in a public space louder than I'm having a conversation with the person I'm with. This is all pretty shallow sounding, but underneath it all, it just feels like a disregard for me - I'm the one feeling this, but also what bothers me about it is it's for everybody. And some people aren't as affected by it and I actually think that's kind of a shame. Because I think more people should be affected. More people should be standing up for the little injustices that happen. Because I believe that those are just glimpses of greater tragedies. If I'm not on your radar and I'm like you, then how not on your radar are the people that aren't like you at all? Or that aren't in your town? Or that aren't in your state? Or in your economic status? Or of your race, gender, sexual orientation? The atrocities of the world that really deeply do affect me when I think about them - that may not affect me on my day-to-day - begin with not using your blinker. And then my response to that concerns me. My level of frustration or hurt feelings or rage affect me. And that makes me wonder, too. So, I'm presented with an opportunity every single day to consider why I'm acting like such an idiot (laughs) - you know - while I'm sitting there wondering why this person's acting like an idiot.
I don't know. Selfishness, I guess, is what really bums me out. I don't know if this is what we've got. I don't know if this is our one life. I don't know what's next. I don't know if we're energy and we just turn into more energy. But even if we do, why not be good energy? I've got a lot to say about that (laughs) but I think I've made my point.
AH: So - two parts here - what can you do about it? And say there's people who are greedy and selfish, as you describe, is that in your control? This is a little bit rhetorical, but is that in your control? Whether it is or not, what can you do about it in terms of making a change or making a shift?
ACT: Like you with your daughters, I try to model behavior that I like to see. So, I tend to throw my hand up and wave to say thanks for letting me in or I try to use my signals or let people cross through the pedestrian way. I show up on time - if not early, to a fault. I be where I say I'm gonna be. I honor my word. I tell people I care about them. And when I'm faced with my own potential hypocrisies, I think about that. I don't know what else there is to do. But I think there has to be a larger... I think there has to be more. Because I don't know that we can just all try to model for the people that are paying attention. I think we're not doing that quick enough, so I'm scared. And I'm not sure what else to do. Phew. Nice question.
Do you have anything that you'd like to say in closing?
AH: I think a lot of it comes back to mindfulness. And, again, it's easy to sit here and talk about all these things. If you were to come observe me and me quote/unquote modeling for my kids, you might say, It's nice what you said in your office, but... (laughs) what you're doing in reality may be different. But we can't change what's happened. It goes without saying, we can't change the past. But we can reflect. We can be mindful. We can be mindful for using our blinker. We can be mindful to wave a thank you when we cross a street and a car stopped for us. Even if they were supposed to stop and it's a crosswalk, we can still do that. Someone's helping us at a store or a restaurant, that's a human being helping us and working with us. And I think we're all working together. And we can perceive it however we want. Reality is really just how we perceive it. And so, how do we choose to perceive it? And that can become our reality. Again, easier said than done.
And we all have well-worn grooves in our brain that we go down. But those grooves that aren't helpful for our day-to-day functioning can be filled in and more grooves can be put in that's healthier and goes down the opening to love versus going down a groove that's based in fear. And being open to those who are different - I think you learn more from those who are different than you do from those who agree with and are the same as you and have very similar backgrounds and lives. And so, getting out of our comfort zones - which I think is getting harder and harder in the current state - to expose ourselves to those who are different and to be open to what they're saying and to deeply listen and to ask questions.
My grandfather would always say, Those who are interested are interesting. And so, you learn a lot more from asking questions than from saying how you think things are or should be. Ask questions. Don't assume. And when someone doesn't turn their blinker on or you're angry because someone cut you off, what's going on in their life? You know? Are they having a bad day? Are they having trouble at home? Having trouble at work? Health issues? There could be a reason. There usually is. I think at the core, the vast majority of people want to be good people and want to contribute and want to just have their basic needs met - including love. So, if we can all start trying to approach that little by little, from that approach more and more, then perhaps things will start shifting. And at a minimum, hopefully they'll start shifting for ourselves. We can only control what we can control.