Those who are avid readers and serious students of the many adventures of Sherlock Holmes claim that this world-famous detective was born on Jan. 6, and so this Sunday there will be celebrations all over the world held in his honor.
Sherlock Holmes, of course, was a character of fiction, having been created by a British doctor named Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle modeled his hero after one of his former Edinburgh University medical-school teachers, Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell had a genius for taking note of every detail about his patients, and then using those observations to aid him in making his diagnoses.So, too, is Sherlock Holmes a master of observation and deduction. Nothing escapes his notice, for even the smallest piece of information, to him, can be useful in understanding a person's behavior and eventually solving a crime. He often upbraids his companion, Dr. Watson, for not being sufficiently attuned to all the clues there are to be found in the dress, speech or bearing of the client or suspect with whom they have just been conversing. "You see well enough," he says, "but you do not observe."
There is a great lesson here, I think, and a great opportunity as well for all of us, but especially for our teenage children. It lies in the use of observation - not to aid in the investigation of others, but to help us see ourselves through the eyes of others.
We can play at being Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson with our children by focusing our attention on an object - an automobile, let's say - and observing what its license plate, its age and model, even its dents, can tell us about its owner. When we watch a movie or television we can focus on one character and try to determine what that person's dialect, dress or mannerisms are designed to convey to the audience. I especially like to use TV commercials in this way because their creators have only a minute or less to transmit their desired impressions, and so there are an abundance of clues to be found.
Now why, you may ask, did I say that this was a particularly good learning opportunity for teenagers? Because the purpose of all this observation is to help our children come to realize for themselves that they, too, are being observed and that they, too, are sending messages and creating impressions. When teenagers begin to identify the "Valley talk" or the jargon of the surf or rock culture as being a badge of ignorance for characters who use it in movie or TV scripts, they may not wish to convey a similar impression of themselves, at least outside their own peer group.
More important, though, is the benefit that teenagers can receive from knowing that their own actions are being observed and are being interpreted and are having an effect on others. An "inconsiderate" teenager (which may seem a redundant phrase) is often just thoughtless, not malicious. By becoming more sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others, our teenagers can, for perhaps the first time, live outside themselves and look back on themselves from another's perspective.
Sherlock Holmes's technique of detailed observation, then, can lead us to see the wisdom both in the adage about "walking a mile in another person's shoes" and, in the words of the poet Robert Burns (with a slight transposition): "To see ourselves as others see us/It would from many a blunder free us."