Boredom is the biggest struggle for Sherlock Holmes. He craves like an addiction the thrill of unwrapping a difficult case. While Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels do include details about all of the things Holmes does to escape the dullness of not having a case—opium, cocaine (both legal when the books were published), destruction of property—the theme of his agonizing bouts with utter boredom is front and center in the BBC’s recent retelling, Sherlock, set in twenty-first century London.
Sherlock—and, in the BBC’s adaptation, his archenemy Moriarty—seems to attribute his boredom to his outstanding intellect and keen sense of perception. Holmes can enjoy the thrill of discovery, of solving the most complicated problems by noticing the things everyone else misses. But with those thrills come deep lows. He perceives most things as dull. While ordinary people miss the details that provide the fodder for his thrilling puzzles, they attach meaning and importance to things that Holmes just dismisses.
Holmes is bored because there are too few problems worth his solving. He needs something to occupy his well-developed faculties. He craves stimulation.
However, there is a two-fold trouble with this self-serving presentation that he is incurably bored because of how perceptive he is: boredom is not reserved to absolute geniuses, and it is possible to be both smart and happy. Even people who go about their days missing what most people notice can find themselves in the dark malaise of the understimulated. And brilliant people can be happy and fulfilled.
Like Holmes, we get bored when we have no suitable activities to engage in. The trouble with Holmes isn’t that he craves activity. It’s that he’s ordered himself toward the wrong act. His whole life is ordered toward his work as a consulting detective. When the thrill of solving difficult cases is thwarted, his whole life is unsatisfying.
There is, however, only one pursuit that’s worth man’s total devotion. There is only one inexhaustible mystery to be contemplated. Only God can satisfy ultimately. As St. Augustine prays at the beginning of his Confessions, “our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.” In knowing and loving God we find an activity that never needs to end. Otherwise we will never find happiness, and boredom will remain an ever-present threat ready to strike once the next novelty wears off—or the next puzzle is solved.
Image: Frederic Dorr Steele, Sherlock Holmes