“My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence.”
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four
I’ve always admired Sherlock Holmes. An adoring child, I’ve wanted to be like him. I’ve lionized his habits, his need of fuel for the furnace. I thought that made his mind shine bright. I thought something like that would make my mind shine bright. I still love him, but I don’t think I want to train my mind like that anymore.
Sherlock’s mind is always working. He sees, observes, deduces, understands. He burns problems to make light: without a problem, he needs something else to burn. Opium. Cocaine. I always thought this was part of his (perhaps tragic) heroism: this fiery intellect, this mind that cannot rest.
I usually think I need to be working. I turn ideas over in my head, again and again; I make lists and check them; I form and reform sentences, trying to make them balance. I plan future classes and relive past mistakes, poking at what I did wrong so that tomorrow I can do right. If there’s a workbench in my mind, scattered across with hammers and wrenches, I spend most of my time at it. For a long time, I’ve taken it as given that I should. I’ve assumed that’s where I–where all good people–where Sherlock Holmes–belongs.
Detective fiction often suggests a world that can be figured out if only we work hard enough. That’s what the hero does: he comes into confusing, convoluted lives and he figures out the lies and emotions, figures out who did what, and why. In that world, always working is the cardinal virtue. It’s what lets you move forward. The thing is, I’m not sure I want to live in that world. I’m not sure I always want to be a detective. I’m not sure I want people to be billiard balls, bouncing forward in action and reaction as I solve for the collisions. I’m not sure I want to spend all my days at the workbench. Isn’t there something else?
Perhaps today, in the world of caffeine spiders spinning broken webs, my stagnation–my “dull routine of existence”–comes more from my obsessive work than from the quiet moments. I keep going back to the garden, keep walking the paths of my mind, checking and rechecking the sprouts I’ve planted, lugging water, looking for bugs–and along the way, I’m trampling something that was growing up between the cobblestones. I have my head down, and don’t see the sky. Maybe a good farmer sits in the grass every now and then. Maybe he lets the creek of his mind run, and he lets it slow and gather. Maybe Sherlock Holmes, were he alive and breathing, would learn something from stillness, from silence, from slipping in to quiet waters.