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When it comes to giving gifts, little things mean a lot

If you’re racking your brain, wondering what to buy that “hard-to-buy-for” person, then consider buying him/her a 12 million-year-old whale bone. Specifically, the inner ear bone from a sperm whale, circa Miocene Epoch.

It’s the ultimate conversation piece, and I promise you there will, in this case, be no duplicate gift. Plus, it’s unlikely the recipient will say: “Oh, I already have a fossilized inner ear sperm whale bone from the Miocene! Did they have any fossilized sperm whale vertebrae from the same epoch? Maybe we could exchange it.”

At first glance, it looks like igneous rock. Or compressed coal. Holding it in your hand, you’d be hard-pressed to know what you were holding. Hmm. How easy it would be to open a gift shop stocked with weirdly shaped volcanic rocks, stick random signs on them like “17 million-year-old pelvic girdle of Doofdorkadon, Walmart Epoch,” then charge $50 for it.

In the words of the late George Carlin, “If you nail two things together that no one has ever nailed together, some schmuck will buy it!”

You guessed it – I now have a fossilized Miocene sperm whale inner ear bone displayed in my office. It was a gift. As I behold it, the impish part of my brain wonders if I should stick a sign on it that says, “Free session if you can guess what this is!”

Having said all this, it might surprise you to hear that this gift put a lump in my throat. Brought tears to me eyes. Moved me deeply.

It was a gift from someone who “gets” me. Understands me. Understands that I see the world through icons, images and metaphors. Understands how much I enjoy being radically humbled by the perspective of history and time. “He’s the kind who thinks about the forest when he burns a piece of wood,” wrote songwriter Paul Williams, and she knows that this describes me.

She knows that I am fascinated by totem culture. Long before Sigmund Freud provided the language to describe it, totem culture made a way of life out of collective psychological projections onto the great beasts of the earth. Aboriginal Europeans called these animals “familiars,” and only the xenophobic ignorance of religion could associate this worldview with evil, magic and sorcery. No, a totem animal carries archetypal energies for the tribe, reflecting pictures of the important attributes of being human. If you’ve ever loved a dog or a cat, then you have participated in the totem way of life, albeit, likely unconsciously.

Alone, the fossil gift would have provided a moment or two of intrigue. But what rocked my world was what she said when I received it: “Steven, you listen to frequencies that most people don’t hear.”

She speaks of my vocation. She knows my preferred description of what I do for a living: I listen acutely – with ears, eyes, mind, heart and soul – to people talk. And then I say back what I have heard in a way that lets people hear what they are saying. You heard that right. Human beings often talk without hearing, listening or understanding themselves.

I lose count each week at the number of times a patient will thank me for some insight, and I will shrug and say, “You said it.” Over and over I have occasion to look at a patient and say, “I’m guessing you didn’t hear yourself answer your own question just now, even as you were asking it.”

A sperm whale dives deep for what it needs. So deep that sperm whale bones show signs of decompression injuries. Which is to say it’s often uncomfortable to dive deep. Yep, I’ll dive deep with you. And there aren’t words to describe how I admire the people who come to my office wanting to dive deeply.

The clicking vocalization of a sperm whale is the loudest sound made by any animal. It’s used primarily for sonar, to see what’s out there in the dark depths where no light can reach. For me, this is a metaphor for the art of asking questions. When I’ve had occasion to be in therapy, being confronted with new questions is always the best part for me. New questions make for new and often better answers.

The fossil doesn’t make me cry. What makes me cry is love that has taken the time to see me, know me, “get” me, and affirm the meaning of my work in the world.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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