“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” said novelist and essayist Joan Didion. What she meant was that we understand our own lives as stories, as narratives, with narrative “arcs.” Where we are in our own life story provides the context within which we evaluate relationships and experiences and make decisions. Job offers, illnesses, disagreements with friends or family — each of these will mean something different to us at different points in our lives. We can’t understand ourselves as frozen in time. Self-understanding is a narrative construction.
The world is gray. Natural categories enable us to see gray. Judgments are almost always relative. Frames help us see relations. And isolated events or episodes occur in the context of ongoing lives being lived. Narratives enable us to appreciate lives as lived and make sense of the episode before us.
A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule… A wise person knows how to improvise… Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.