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Life Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

November 29, 2015


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Ted Pack with an eagle on his head Good afternoon, and thank you for coming out when you could be home, making leftover turkey sandwiches and watching football games on TV. My topic this morning is "Life Lessons from Sherlock Holmes".

Sherlock Holmes is the best-known and best-loved detective in all of English Literature. Even people who don't normally read detective stories know what the dog did in the night. That's from "The Adventure of Silver Blaze", and the dog didn't bark during the night, which told Holmes that the dog knew the man who removed the race horse named Silver Blaze from his stall.

He appears in 56 short stories and 4 novels, written by Sir Author Conan Doyle between 1887 and 1927. The stories themselves take place from about 1880 until 1914. Almost all of them purport to be written by Dr. John Watson, invalided out of the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers.

Holmes isn't a hard-boiled detective; he never draws his .45 and filled a villain as full of holes as 12 pounds of rotten Swiss cheese. In most stories the deadliest weapon he uses is a riding crop.

That doesn't mean Doyle never wrote a line with graphic violence. In "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange", Jack Crocker tells us:

"... when he rushed like a madman into the room, called her the vilest name that a man could use to a woman, and welted her across the face with the stick he had in his hand. I had sprung for the poker, and it was a fair fight between us. See here, on my arm, where his first blow fell. Then it was my turn, and I went through him as if he had been a rotten pumpkin."


Exactly why are the stories so poplar, even 100 years after Holmes took his last bow? I think it is partly because they make us feel comfortable; her Majesty Victoria is on the throne, a fourth of the world is part of the British Empire, and if some university student slips up, he can always find a position in the Rhodesian Police. Another character, in a different story, gets a government appointment on the island of Mauritius, an island east of Madagascar, and a third goes to the terai tea plantations in India. There is always a place to go and a job to do, for an Englishman.

That brings up a point - Doyle was a man of his times, and there is some mild racism in some of the stories and some mild sexism in others. The concept of "The White Man's Burden" is there too. In Doyle's defense, one of the stories involves a mixed-race marriage, which he treats respectfully, and in another Irene Adler, a woman, outwits Holmes.

Doyle was a Spiritualist and avowedly not a Christian. At times he sounds like a Humanist. In "The Sign of the Four" Holmes is watching workmen straggle home from a boatyard "Dirty-looking rascals," he says, " but I suppose every one has some little immortal spark concealed about him". That's pretty darn close to respecting the "inherent worth and dignity of every person".

Back to the popularity - usually, Holmes visits the scene of the crime, asks pointed questions, makes a brilliant deduction, then he and Watson go back to 221 B Baker Street, where Mrs. Hudson has roasted a woodcock and decanted a couple of cobwebby bottles. What could be nicer? Holmes never has to worry about collecting a fee, or washing his socks, or finding a bathroom; he sails along on a plane above the rest of us mortals, and we love him.

The first thing I want to mention isn't a lesson, it's an analogy. All of us have been asked what Unitarian Universalism is about. If the asker is a Holmes fan, the answer is easy. I always say UU congregations are to churches what the Diogenes Club is to gentlemen's clubs.

In "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter" Holmes tells us that his brother, Mycroft, is a member of the Diogenes Club. It is quite the oddest club in London:

"...There are many men in London, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubable men in town. . ."

We, in turn, since we don't all have the same belief about the nature of God, are the oddest denomination in the country. There are people who don't fit in regular churches; Atheists, Agnostics, Deists, Theists, Pagans, free-thinkers, Christians who married Jews, Buddhists who married Anglicans . . . Yet, they are not averse to exploring spiritual issues, working with a group for social justice or having potlucks. So, they join a UU congregation.

My opinion is not universal. Our web committee voted down using that comparison, 1:6, both times I proposed it. They thought the word "unchurchable" would offend members and visitors alike

Our first lesson - don't think for someone else.

"The Adventure of the Norwood Builder" involves a young lawyer, John McFarlane, whose parents live in Blackheath. Jonas Oldacre is the builder in Norwood. He comes into young McFarlane's office in London one morning and asks him to draw up a will. Oldacre gives McFarlane a draft, in which, McFarlane is astonished to see, he is the heir. Oldacre explains he courted McFarlane's mother in his youth, still thinks fondly of her, and has no children of his own. A confusing day and night pass, and it looks like McFarlane, eager to get his inheritance, visited the builder in Norwood and murdered him there. When this scene opens, Inspector Lestrade, from Scotland Yard, Holmes, Watson and McFarlane are in the study at 221B Baker Street. Lestrade, who is as courageous as a bulldog and almost as smart, has listened to McFarlane's explanation of the previous 24 hours.

"Anything more that you would like to ask, Mr. Holmes?" said Lestrade.

"Not until I have been to Blackheath."

"You mean to Norwood," said Lestrade.

"Oh, yes, no doubt that is what I must have meant," said Holmes, with his enigmatical smile.

Holmes goes to Blackheath, finds out the builder is cruel and calculating - which is why McFarlane's mother ended the courtship - then goes to Norwood, where he solves the case.

When I was web master, I used to ask first-time visitors if there was anything they either couldn't find or had a hard time finding on the site. One month three different people told me they had had a hard time finding the service times. It was in bold letters at the top of the Sunday Services page, which had eight sermon blurbs. My first instinct was to tell them they couldn't have missed it; yet they said they had, and they knew better than I did what problems they'd had. I remembered Inspector Lestrade, and added the service times eight more times, right after the date on each of the sermon blurbs. That solved the problem.

One of Holmes' most-quoted lines is ""When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." There are improbable events in this world. As I was writing this, I fell for what is called "click bait" in facebook and learned that a lady named Violet Jessop survived two ship sinkings - the Titanic in 1912 and the Titanic's sister ship, the Britannic, in 1916.

More often, there are things that are neither improbable nor impossible - we just don't want to believe them. Back to the service times on the web page - I didn't want to believe anyone could miss them. It was right at the top, in bold letters, and I prided myself in clear, simple web design. Yet three people did miss them.

It turns out they skipped the stuff at the top, probably to avoid the line about "a warm and caring place to grow spiritually" that half the church web sites in the world promised back then, and went straight to the sermon topic for the date they were interested in, half to three-quarters of the way down the page. It had the date but not the time, back then.

The next time you find yourself about to say "But that's impossible.", ask yourself - impossible, or improbable? If it's improbable, you may be trying to fool yourself, because of what you want to believe.

Not all of Holmes' lessons are positive. He teaches us not to brag about our skills. "You know my methods - apply them", he tells the long-suffering Watson more than once. Watson has seen Holmes deduce things, but that doesn't mean he has the same skills.

I think it is the most infuriating line in the complete works. It reminds me of an English professor I had in college. Everyone in the class had all struggled to come up with 500 words for an essay about a four-line poem. He told us that he could write 1,000 words about it. At the time, thanks to a summer job with the forest service, I could throw a double-bitted axe at a tree and have it stick 8 times out of 10; moreover, I could hit an 18-inch circle on that tree four times out of those ten throws. I wondered idly if I should offer to trade; I'd teach him how to throw an axe if he would teach us how to expound on a poem.

Today I rarely struggle to come up with enough words; indeed, I had to cut things out of this homily, because you folks like to be finished in an hour. In my 60's, I have written a 2,500-word homily on nothing more than a short question on Yahoo! Answers. I've done that twice. But, sitting in the back of that class that afternoon in Berkeley, the 20-year old me had come up 150 words short, and I thought our professor was bragging, when he should have been teaching us how to become writers.

The line "Here - let me show you how to do that", or, even better, "Would you like to see how I do that?" is infinitely more helpful than the line "I can do that; why can't you?".

There are a couple of lessons that fall into the "Do not try this at home" category. To pick one, in "The Adventure of the Dancing Men", Watson comes down to breakfast. Holmes thinks to himself for a moment, then tells Watson he sees that he is not going to invest in South African securities. Watson is astounded - as are we - until Holmes explains his reasoning, in a chain of 9 deductions. Step by step it is clear; when he goes straight to the end of the chain it is astounding.

You will get some odd looks if you do the same thing.

I can remember being at an annual dinner meeting with my wife at her medical group, many years ago. As the CEO got up to address the crowd, she told me he was quite the financial genius; he owned 3 houses by the time he was 29. That set off a chain of reasoning in my mind. Three can be a big number, if it is how many houses you own by age 29. One can be a big number, for that matter, if it is the number of Olympic gold medals or Nobel prizes you've won, best-selling novels you've written or times you've gone to the moon. My next thought was that even a number less than one could be important, in some cases. If you are a major league baseball player, for instance, any lifetime batting above .275 is notable enough they would mention it in your obituary. Obituaries kicked off thoughts of my own demise. I want to be cremated, and the happiest moments I've had as an adult were the times I spent as an assistant troop leader in the Girl Scouts, when our daughters were young. My wife thinks I'm too long winded as it is, so I cut out the intermediate steps and replied "When I'm cremated, I want to be wearing my Girl Scout tee-shirt and hiking jeans".

She looked at me like I had told her my work on this planet was finished, and as soon as we got home I was going to call the mother ship for a pick-up. So - if you are talking to someone, and one thing reminds you of another, make sure you connect the dots.

Our next lesson is that there is a distinction between justice and the law. It's a common one in detective fiction.

In "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton", a lady asks Holmes to negotiate with Milverton, who is a blackmailer, for some embarrassing letters. Holmes tries and fails to reach a price. He and Watson then set out to burgle Milverton's house, to steal the letters. While they are in his study, hiding behind a curtain, a veiled lady enters the study. She flings off her veil. Milverton recognizes one his former victims, a lady who tells him her husband died of a broken heart shortly after she failed to pay him. She draws a pistol and starts shooting. Watson moves to stop her after the first shot, but Holmes restrains him and she empties all six rounds into Milverton.

She flees. Watson and Holmes do too, after destroying Milverton's stash of papers. The murder goes unsolved.

This isn't a lesson I want you to apply in real life. I'm not in favor of burglary, murder or wanton destruction. I mention it because it makes a more satisfying ending than the last John Grisham novel I read, in which a huge corporation buys an appellate court election, and by doing so escapes having to pay a $36,000,000 judgement for dumping carcinogens into a town's water supply. It's a lot more satisfying story when the good guys win.

There are a couple of other lessons you shouldn't take away from the Holmes stories. A pound of the strongest shag tobacco won't sharpen your thinking powers, and if you are bored with life, cocaine in a 7% solution isn't the answer.

There are more lessons, but my time's about up. The stories have their flaws, but they hold up remarkably well, for being, in some cases, over a hundred years old. I recommend them - and their lessons - to you.

[Delivered November 29, 2015. In 2008, my wife and I went to Peru to visit our daughter, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer. While we were there we met a gentleman who rented out his Andean black-chested eagle-buzzard, one nuevo sole (35 cents) for five minutes, to tourists who had always wanted a picture of themselves with an eagle on their heads. Who could resist?]

This is one of a series of homilies I wrote for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, in Modesto, California, from 2003 - 2014.

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This page updated: January 23, 2017