"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Guest Post: Holmes and Watson in the Great Outdoors

Dennis Palumbo
Posted: January 5, 2010 11:40 AM

With the success of the new film Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson, I'm reminded of the following pithy little fable. (But I'll be damned if I can remember where I first heard it.)

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went for an outing one weekend far north of London. They
pitched camp, ate a rustic meal over a wood-fueled fire, and sat contently as night fell, smoking their pipes and talking about nothing in particular.

Finally, they decided to turn in.

Some hours later, Holmes woke up his sleeping companion and pointed up at the ink-black sky, dotted with hundreds of luminous stars.

"Tell me, Watson," said Holmes. "When you look up at the night sky, what do you perceive?"

Watson blinked awake and contemplated the heavens above them.

"Well, meteorologically, I can tell from the striations of cloud that the weather will soon turn inclement. Astrologically, I can see that Orion's belt has shifted a bit toward the horizon. Astronomically, I understand that those stars twinkling above are actually roaring suns, giving off tremendous energy. Chronologically, I realize that the distances between those stars and our world are so vast, the light we see now actually shone from them millions of years ago. And, philosophically, I comprehend that in the limitless vastness of the universe, man and his works are quite small and insignificant."

Then Watson turned to his friend.

"Now, Holmes, what do you perceive?"

Holmes sighed. "I perceive that someone has stolen our tent!"

I don't think a Zen monk could have fashioned a better story about mindfulness, and the seductions of over-intellectualizing the world we experience. Plus, it's funny.

I'm also reminded of a quote by Fritz Perls, one of the founder of Gestalt therapy, who advised his clinical students to "Dare to be superficial." In other words, when working with a patient in therapy, pay more attention to what's actually happening in front of you than to any elaborate theories you may be formulating in your head.

Anyway, as the current (and certainly post-modern) version of Conan Doyle's great detective character continues to make noise at the box office, I could think of no better time to re-visit this wonderful anecdote about Holmes and Watson. And if anybody has any information about the story's origin, I'd be happy to hear it.


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