Friday 25 January 2013

Sherlock Holmes’ Attic Theory

By Artur Suski, S.J.

In the second episode of Elementary from the television network CBS, Sherlock Holmes has yet another heated discussion with Dr. Watson, this time regarding the mind; Sherlock laments that too much useless information clutters our minds. He names his “data filtering” system the attic theory. The attic is where useful things are stored; but when we begin to accumulate useless things there too, we will need to get rid of the useful things just to make space for the useless. In other words, the useless begins to displace the useful.

To illustrate his point, Sherlock takes a glass and fills it with olive oil, which represents the useful things that we should keep in our minds. He then takes cold water and pours it into the glass. What happens? If you’ve taken Chemistry 101, you’ll remember that the fats float to the surface while water remains at the bottom. Sherlock keeps pouring the water until the water pushes all of the oil out of the glass. “What do we have then, Dr. Watson? A head full of rubbish!”

This is an excellent illustration for what can happen to our souls. Our glasses are filled with holy oil as we grow in the spiritual life and receive the Sacraments; yet we should not forget that we all too often pour too much water into our glasses! Sherlock wants to illustrate that the mind does not have an infinite capacity – it can only hold so much. The more we clutter it with useless or even bad things, the less space there is for the good stuff. If we only have a finite amount of space, we should only strive to keep good things there.

The issue then becomes discernment. We have to discern whether that which we are watching, reading, or doing is feeding us spiritually with good things, or whether it is bringing us down into the gutter. St. Ignatius in one of his letters wrote that we human beings either advance or digress in the spiritual life. Only God is unchanging – the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We either grow or regress in holiness. We do not remain at the same spiritual state. What, then, do we choose: to move forward or backward? Perhaps we should honestly ask ourselves: what am I filling my glass with? The answer may be difficult to face, but this question must be asked of ourselves regularly.

First of all, we must have that desire to have less water and more oil; we can only have more if we truly desire it. Then it is a matter of self-discipline, which is something that society often dismisses as an “old-school” or outdated concept. One thing is for certain: we are not in it on our own – God provides the oil.

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