Tuesday, February 25, 2014
In Defense of Sherlock
Right now there seems to be a lot of confusion running rampant about the personality and motivations behind Sherlock Holmes of BBC’s Sherlock. "He's selfish" crops up online regularly and I'm always left slightly puzzled at this interpretation of his behavior. I don't accept that interpretation of his actions. Okay, perhaps he is selfish, but the question should always come before the judgment. And really, just how selfish is he? Why is he selfish? What drives that selfishness? And perhaps, at the end of the day, we're left with the understanding that Sherlock isn't actually selfish at all, but something else entirely.
You see, I think it's important to judge fictional characters based off their personality types and the mannerisms those personality types exhibit. Perhaps a lot of people don't interact with an INTP (Myers-Briggs Personality Test) regularly, but that is one of the three personalities (leave it to him to use THREE personality types!) that Sherlock exhibits, and if I know anything in this entire world, it's how an INTP thinks. Nope, not because I am one since I'm an ISFJ thank you very much. Rather, I've been blessed with an INTP for a best friend, and if that doesn't give me insight into Sherlock's lunacy then nothing will.
Sherlock as an INTP is broken down into 4 cognitive functions: internal thinking (Ti), external intuition (Ne), internal sensing (Si), and external feeling (Fe).
Now, because I'm not an INTP, I actually went to my INTP for some insights into Sherlock's behavior. Let’s pause and look at his loneliness for a moment, shall we? Yes, Sherlock Holmes is lonely. The question is why. The conversation Sherlock and Mycroft have over their frankly endearing game of Operation is telling of the loneliness in both of them. The difference between the two men is that Sherlock is aware that he has been lonely whereas Mycroft doesn’t realize it about himself. As my friend puts it, “Our nature is to be fiercely independent; our desire is not to NEED anyone, so we both shy away from admitting that we do need people and are afraid to ask for help.” Remember when Sherlock says in season 2 that he doesn’t have friends? This is why. He is afraid to admit that he actually needs friends or at least a friend. As soon as he let those words out, he knew they were a mistake because he needs John and he knows he needs him, no matter how hard that fact is to admit.
What a lot of my readers don’t know is that my INTP and I had a period of separation from our friendship, like John and Sherlock. It lasted for nearly two years before the Lord brought us back together again. What I didn’t realize was how the reconciliation worked on my INTP’s end. In her words, “We don’t realize we’re lonely until we’ve had friends and lost them. We do just fine on our own for a long time, but then we start missing people when away from them for prolonged periods of time – when we return to having a relationship, we appreciate it more because that period of solitude made us realize we’re lonely.” An ISFJ, like John and like me, is never entirely lonely. People tend to like us because we’re warm and outgoing and compassionate. INTPs, by their own admission, don’t attach emotionally to people all that often and are fiercely independent. Friendships don’t come easy so when one disappears, especially a close one, there’s a bit of a void. Honestly, on my end, there was a void too because I was and am very attached to my INTP. John Watson much?
What conclusion can we draw from this? Sherlock Holmes and all INTPs need friends even when they’re afraid to admit it to themselves and to others. Sherlock’s nature is torn regarding friendship which is why he determinedly behaves as though he doesn’t care. But he does care and we, the viewers, absolutely must remember that.
Next on the roster is Sherlock’s “selfishness.” I use quotation marks because Sherlock’s top function is Ti therefore utterly changing the definition of selfishness. Do you have any idea how much he thinks? The rest of the world is boring to him because silly little conversations and frippery do not impress him. And when an INTP gets bored they tend to get . . . distracted at best or disagreeable at worst. Sherlock Holmes hates being bored. This is not something that he can fix. The man's top function is Ti so the need to be mentally stimulated is never, ever going away. The viewers cannot expect him to suddenly turn all wine and roses on them. He will always be irascible when he's bored, and you may have noticed, that's 90% of the time. How is it selfish for a man to be what he is? My INTP walked into the room as I wrote this, and she laughingly told me that, "Sherlock often says exactly what I think but would never say." I’ll address the reasons for this difference in personality within the INTP type at the end of my post.
People are out to change Sherlock, but what they don't realize is that he is changing already, on his own terms! He's learned through his friendship with John to utilize his lower cognitive functions, leading to both positive and negative results. Remember when Sherlock and John were drunk off their skulls? And Tessa came to them with the whole "I'm dating a ghost, Mr. Holmes" problem? Think of how both Sherlock and John reacted. John's empathy was practically nill, not his usual reaction at all. He's sitting in the background, almost asleep, but when he is awake he's, frankly, annoyed with Tessa, shaking his head because he finds her story ridiculous. Why? Because John’s lower functions of Ti and Ne have kicked in while he's turned off his higher ones. John just doesn’t care about Tessa’s problems in that moment. Sherlock's lower functions also kicked in, except that his are Si and Fe, the same as John's higher ones. Sherlock's listening to Tessa's story and tears are glittering in his eyes. He's even reprimanding John for falling asleep, telling him it's rude. Ordinarily, Sherlock's behavior would be interpreted as hypocritical since there is no ruder man on earth, but it's not hypocritical in this moment. By both men turning off their higher functions and just using their lower ones, they quite literally switched personalities in their approach to Tessa.
What does it mean for Sherlock to develop his lower functions? For one thing, he’s showing an interest in other people, or at least, he’s trying. He tries to engage people in small talk, something that does not come naturally to him, and he tries to remember details about their lives.
Take Molly Hooper. Does anyone remember the insane level of rudeness he exhibited towards Molly in the 1st and 2nd seasons? Is it just me? Tell me it isn’t just me because that Sherlock, the Sherlock who shows off at the expense of others is not the Sherlock Holmes we see in the 3rd season. This new Sherlock digs into the recesses of his Mind Palace for some dusty information stored under a stack of moldy magazines and emerges triumphant with the name of Molly’s boyfriend, a man he cares about not one whit. An even stronger example of his exercising of empathy muscles is that he doesn’t rip said boyfriend to verbal shreds when the man suggests that the bloody guardsman was stabbed with a meat dagger. I’m not sure that even I would have been that kindly. Sherlock listens to Molly more than he ever has before, and he wishes her all the happiness he is capable of wishing. This is not the Sherlock who uses her red lipstick as an excuse to pick her apart piece by piece during a Christmas party.
His Ti rebels at every idiot he encounters, which is just about everyone. But this new and improved Sherlock pauses, takes an internal deep breath, and doesn’t always pop off with the first thing that comes to mind. He is learning to temper his responses. Why? Because he has been away for those 2 years, has returned, and realizes that he actually missed people, even D.I. “Gavin” Lestrade (winks).
He tries to consider them when he does something. This doesn’t always work, of course, hence the flurry of texts pleading for help when he’s writing his best man’s speech. But think of the response he gives when Lestrade shows up, something along the lines of, “You didn’t go to any trouble, did you?” He’s trying to consider other people needs on the same level as his own needs. It’s not his fault that Lestrade didn’t pause to think, “Wait a minute, let me clarify exactly what he needs before I rush over to Baker Street.” That would have been me, and that would have been John. I mean, you get burned once or twice and you learn to ask what Sherlock needs before dropping everything and rushing over. Sherlock is never going to entirely change so others need to realize how he’ll react in a certain situation and base their own actions accordingly.
To be fair, let’s also mention the negative side of Sherlock’s discovery of his lower functions. Now, he can and does manipulate people. Now that his Fe is activated, he can woo and win a girlfriend without actually forming any real attachment to her. Hence the marriage proposal to Janine that had John spitting fury in the background because Sherlock had her wound so tightly around his little finger and didn’t actually mean any of it. So, yes, Fe is a great thing, but in the hands of a manipulator, it can be used to obtain information. All great spies probably utilize Fe because they’re so darn good at their jobs.
Just remember that Sherlock is not unique in this. Any Fe user can manipulate people’s emotions, even the nicer ones. I’ve been guilty of it myself a time or two, although not to the same level as Sherlock. I don’t date unless I like someone.
When Sherlock gets angry, it’s because people don’t understand him when they should be fully capable of understanding, at least from his point of view. Is his point of view skewed? Probably, but he’s never going to fully accept that ordinary people can’t follow his deductive reasoning. Why judge him for something that he cannot change? He and John might both use Fe, but Fe is Sherlock’s last function whereas it’s John’s second function. That pretty much changes how well and how often someone uses it. Everyone in his close sphere is pretty much resigned to the singular fact that Sherlock Holmes is never really going to change. He can develop those lower functions, but that’s not really changing, it’s simply exercising a part of himself that was already there. He will always be abrasive, he will always be socially awkward, and he will always have moments of pure giddiness over something that excites and exhilarates him and has everyone else freaking out a little bit. He is Sherlock Holmes and that is his INTP personality type.
I’m going to be 100% honest with my readers. I’m tired of people hating on Sherlock. He should do this, he should do that, why can’t he be this, why does he treat people this way? He is an INTP, an INTJ, and an ISTP, that’s why! The man will never be sentimental. You cannot change him. He can develop those lower functions, but they will never, ever be his top functions. Not unless he’s drunk, and let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.
Sherlock is an awkward, quirky, rude child who occasionally pops off with lunacy and other times is totally endearing. He’s a fun and irksome man to be around, and he challenges the people in his life like no one else can. He thinks outside the box, and he forces other people to do the same. He’s playful when he’s in a good mood, and frankly, that’s one of the things I love about my INTP, that playful side that just sneaks out and makes me laugh. Like when she braided my hair a few nights ago while we were watching, duh, Sherlock and as I’m picking teeny little braids apart after the episode she sheepishly says, “That just sort of happened.” Napkin folding, anyone?
John understands the fragility of Sherlock’s emotions, the lack of connection he experiences with himself and with others, and that’s one reason why he stays around. John doesn’t have to stay. He’s not tied to Sherlock with a ball and chain. He chooses to stay because Sherlock Holmes has become John Watson’s best friend, and Sherlock needs him, even when he doesn’t always realize it.
More than anything else in the world, this is something I understand. As soon as I stopped trying to change my INTP and she stopped trying to change me, our relationship transformed into something long-lasting. I don’t control her or try to change her, I respect her intelligence, and I think she’s awesome just the way she is. Sound familiar? Many ISFJs struggle with this insatiable need to fix people. I know because that’s something I fight against all the time. But we cannot fix Sherlock because there really is nothing to fix.
One last note is this: the INTP personality type, just like with any personality type, changes when God is thrown into the mix. Two people with the same personality type can be totally different in their approach to people if one knows God and the other doesn’t. My INTP and I are Christians. The love the Lord Jesus has extended to us is what we project to each other and to the world in general. Where Sherlock pops off with something horribly rude, my INTP doesn’t because her faith has developed her Fe in that she doesn’t want to hurt that other person. God really does make all the difference in the personality type.
So, in conclusion, stop thinking you or anyone else can change Sherlock Holmes. If you dislike him, make sure you dislike him for what he already is, not for what he isn’t and can never be. He is who he is, and if you can’t accept that, maybe it’s time to move on to another fandom. Or find yourself an INTP friend so you can start understanding why Sherlock does what he does.