By Dr. Jim Bailey

As the calendar draws near to the holidays, I begin to think about what gifts I should buy or make for my family. I like giving gifts that will have personal and lasting meaning for the person who receives them, so it takes some thought for me to select or make an important gift. My shortcut in the process is to give someone a gift that’s had lasting value for me.

My “gift” to you this holiday season is a group of ideas given to me by my mentors that have had a profound impact on my life and work. In bible times, when Jewish rabbis taught, they referred to powerful or wise ideas as “pearls,” and if they happened to link these ideas to each other, they were said to be “stringing pearls.” Thus, Jesus teaching that it’s unwise to “throw pearls to swine” is a caution against sharing wisdom with people who won’t understand or value it.

Here are some “pearls” I was given that I want to give you:

“All human behavior is purposeful. Our challenge is to understand the purpose beneath a person’s actions.”

I received this pearl from my doctoral advisor, and while it helps me in my everyday work and relationships, I find it especially helpful in family holiday gatherings. If I can keep it in mind, then I won’t react to people’s words or actions but will ask myself what purpose those things might serve for them. This pearl prevents me from becoming annoyed, angry, or hurt by someone else (then respond by saying something that makes the situation worse) by first asking, “Why did she or he say or do that?”

Taken with Albert Ellis’ hypothesis that most human behavior is intended to protect ourselves from something that we fear, this pearl helps me humanize people who offend or hurt me – especially if I’m willing to acknowledge that I sometimes use self-protecting words and actions also. People are complex, and I may not get a satisfying answer to my question, but focusing on what drives someone’s behavior may bring some empathy and compassion to my thoughts about and actions toward them.

“It takes something powerful to get out of the well-worn paths of behavior.”

Again, this one is from my doctoral advisor, and it’s a pearl I apply to myself, individuals, families, and institutions. There’s a lot of myth surrounding the idea of personal change, most of it having to do with “incremental change,” but people and institutions (families, organizations, businesses, governments) rarely change a little at a time. It takes something dramatic, traumatic, and often painful to bring about real, lasting change.

Addicts, domestic violence victims, those who struggle with emotional or mental health issues, and even people who desire changing unwanted life habits too often must experience an epiphany-bringing event before making a life-saving change. As a rule, families, organizations, businesses, and governments resist change once their daily patterns are well established. Each will expend tremendous energy to maintain their patterns (however undesirable or unhealthy they are) and react harshly, even violently, against those who try to change their patterns. They can become metaphorical “Titanics” with too much momentum, and too small a rudder, to escape the dangers ahead… until the iceberg happens.

Bringing real, lasting change takes something powerful, but that doesn’t mean it requires a crisis or calamity. That powerful thing might be a dramatic life change – relocating, starting (and maintaining) therapy, a relationship change or overhaul, a radical change of diet and exercise, attending a new meeting or church, a different kind of work. These powerful changes are all things within our control, but each requires planting a foot and changing our direction.

“All of life is a parallel process. Our relationships, our families, and even our work will only get as healthy as we are.”

This pearl came from my 68-year-old boss. I was 23 when she shared it with me in the context of my personal life and of our child welfare caseworker team. Since then, I’ve tried to apply it in every facet of my life and work.

Human beings can only give out of themselves what they already possess. If you desire to be a source of love, health, acceptance, peace, wisdom, knowledge, or any good thing to the people in your life, you must first take steps to ensure you are filled with these things. This is especially true in our families and workplaces, where the quality of the interactions and overall culture will largely be determined by the things people bring to them. Because you only have control over what you can bring to a person, group, or place, you must first take steps to ensure you are functioning from a place of fullness.

Dr. Jim Bailey