“Sherlock” and the Limits of Logic

“Downton Abbey” may be grabbing the headlines these days, but there’s another British series with an equally passionate fan base.  That show is “Sherlock,” whose third season began January 19th. (Note: I’m writing this article before the season premiere has aired.  Yes, I’m counting the days.)

“Sherlock,” created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, takes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories and translates them to modern-day London.  Sherlock totes a smartphone; Watson has a blog.  If you’re familiar with the original stories, much of the fun comes from seeing how successfully these famous mysteries can be adapted to twenty-first century sensibilities.

But in my opinion, what makes “Sherlock” so brilliant is the characterization.  Specifically, in this series, the famous detective has a very particular flaw.  For all his stunning brilliance at piecing together clues, Sherlock is severely lacking in what we might call “emotional intelligence.”  When it comes to understanding feelings – particularly the feelings of others – Sherlock is most emphatically not a genius.

It’s not that Sherlock is cruel, though he can edge close to it at times (“What is it like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring,” he says to Watson and Detective Inspector Lestrade in Season One).   Rather, in his relentless drive to exercise his intelligence, he often bulldozes over the feelings of others, unaware that his comments can and do sting.  Even when others call him on his insensitivity, he seems annoyed and bemused by all the fuss.  What’s a hurt feeling in the pursuit of answers?

In this series, it is Watson who serves as the emotional conscience.   Older film versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories portray Watson as not much more than a loyal sidekick, likable and slow.  In this one, Watson is far more empathetic than his friend.  He’s not Sherlock’s intellectual equal (and he knows it), but he is the one who grimaces when Sherlock rides roughshod over others’ feelings and, occasionally, takes his friend to task for it.  It creates a fascinating dynamic between the two characters.   Seeing the two men interact, you see firsthand that intellectual genius is not everything.

And it’s this strand of the story that makes the series so relevant to my life as a mom.

“What do you wish for this child?”  is a question asked of parents at Catholic baptisms.  As Tom McGrath writes in his book Raising Faith-Filled Kids, it’s also a question worth considering in a broader sense.  What do we, as parents, want for our kids in the future?

When I think of my two young boys, I can easily come up with a list of answers: Happiness, good health, a living faith, rewarding work, honesty, healthy relationships.  And, yes, I’ll add “intelligence” to that list.  “Brilliance” would be okay, too.

But brilliance can’t be the only answer, because even Sherlock-style genius does not make a complete human being.  This can be easy to forget in a competitive culture that idolizes high GPAs and SAT scores.  Living as I do in Silicon Valley, the epicenter for innovation, there’s a palpable reverence for brilliance.  Logic and intelligence are valued highly here, in this place where the limits of technology are pushed daily, but they can easily become a golden calf.   Sometimes, we can all use a little reminder that intellectual genius is not the only quality worthy of praise.

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people,” said the rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.   I love this quotation, because it shows that empathy, as un-flashy as it is, is in fact a rare and precious thing.

Maybe, as the quotation says, it’s easiest to appreciate this once we ourselves grow older, and become more reliant on the kindness of others.   At the very least, this quotation – and the show “Sherlock” – affirm that sensitivity to others’ feelings is a trait worth cultivating.

And I appreciate how the writers of “Sherlock” address this issue subtly and gradually.  As the episodes go on, the limits of mere logic become more and more apparent as Sherlock is forced to confront his own emotions as well as others’.

In Season Two, Sherlock begins to feel what might be called a romantic attachment; he also has his first taste of fear.  There is even a scene where he apologizes to another character for a particularly wounding comment, realizing that he has crossed the line.  (It’ll be fascinating to see where Season Three takes him.)  It’s a testament to the talent of actor Benedict Cumberbatch that these little shifts feel totally believable, just as it’s a sign of his skill that even in Sherlock’s most abrasive moments, he is still likable.

Ultimately, you can’t help feeling that Sherlock, for all his faults and deficits in the emotional arena, has potential to grow.  “Sherlock Holmes is a great man,” says Inspector Lestrade in Season One, “and I think one day, if we’re very very lucky, he might even be a good one.”   Empathy can be learned, he seems to imply, and not even a genius can get by without it.

Note: Certain episodes of “Sherlock” (particularly Season Two) contain mature content.   Pre-screen it before watching with your teenagers.

How do you encourage kindness and empathy in your children?

Copyright 2014 Ginny Moyer

6 Comments
  1. Katie
    January 23, 2014 | Reply
    • January 23, 2014 | Reply
  2. January 23, 2014 | Reply
    • January 23, 2014 | Reply
  3. January 23, 2014 | Reply

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.