practicalwisdom_schwartzI believe the Holy Spirit moves through Twitter. I know that sounds weird, but the story I am about to tell is one that has happened often to me.

Yesterday I started writing an essay about dualisms and how we can navigate between seemingly polarized opposites. I’ll post it when it is finished. This morning I opened up Twitter and the first tweet I saw was from Brain Pickings and was a link to Maria’s review of Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe. Maria is a great writer and her review of this book, and the quotes that she highlighted, were a great help to my essay and to my research in general.

I look forward to reading this book in the future. For now, let me highlight some of Maria’s highlights.

The book is built upon Aristotle’s reflections on wisdom and his belief that wisdom is not built from rules, but from telos. The Greek word telos literally means end or goal. For Aristotle, it meant knowing the bigger picture and purpose for why we do certain things. For example, a physician’s telos is to heal people. A musician’s telos is to play music. Each of these disciplines–medicine and music–have certain rules and guidelines that frame the practice, but the telos of the practice is not to rigidly follow the rules. The telos is to heal people and play music, and sometimes that requires improvisation. The wise person knows when to bend, or even break, the rules in order to achieve the telos of the practice. Many people in our culture slavishly follow the letter of the law in the name of wisdom, but, according to Schwartz, are actually unwise and often hurtful to themselves and society.

I believe this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he discussed the Law and the purpose of the Law in his letters, specifically in his letter to the Galatians. He was, of course, following Jesus’ lead in his reframing of the Law in Matthew 5-7. The telos of Law is life, not blind rigid obedience.

Schwartz describes how we are hardwired to become wise as we grow throughout our lives. Maria summarizes the argument, “We exercise our capacity for wisdom in three key ways: natural categorization (our predisposition to organize the world into categories of things, arranged in nuanced ways); framing (finding a context of comparison for things we are evaluating); and storytelling (constructing sense-making narratives about our lives and our experiences). One particularly interesting feature of our predilection for categories is the notion of “fuzziness” — the idea that the categories in which we classify the world are more often based on a nuanced spectrum than a binary dichotomy.

This is where I got really excited because the very thing about which I was writing yesterday was the navigation of these binary dichotomies. Additionally, I decided, within the past week, to frame my dissertation around a narrative structure under the premise that we are storytelling creatures who make sense out of our stories and how we frame them.

The fact that Twitter led me to this post, today, seems to be one of those affirmations from God, and the movement of the Holy Spirit, that I am on a good path. (At least that is the story I’m telling myself as I frame it in this moment 😉 )

Here are some quotes that Maria highlighted that I feel are worth requoting here:

“Schwartz and Sharpe go on to outline the six core qualities of the person endowed with telos:

  1. A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims—wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
  2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
  3. A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
  4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another—to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s (student’s, patient’s, friend’s) needs.
  5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for, and to inform judgment without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or “just know” what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
  6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling.”


“Frame” is a wonderful metaphor because it emphasizes our capacity to take the chaos of the social world around us and organize it in an understandable way. In framing the scene, we are setting the picture off from its surroundings, excluding what is on the outside and defining what is inside as special and worthy of attention. Frames tell us what is important and help us establish what should be compared with what. The capacity we have to frame enables us to do one of the most important things that practical wisdom demands — discern what is relevant about a particular context or event in regard to the decision we face. Learning to frame well helps make us wise.
“Framing” has gotten a bad name. In a marketing context, it is characterized as an effort to manipulate us into buying things we don’t need. In a political context, it is labeled as “spin” and characterized as an effort to slant or distort the truth in the direction of our favored position. And evidence that we depend on the frame, or context of comparison, for making judgments is sometimes regarded as a defect of human reason. We should be able to see and evaluate things as they “really” are, unbiased by the way they are packaged. But in fact, it is our capacity to frame that enables all our judgments, and it is nearly impossible to make judgments that do not depend on frames… It is only our capacity to do this automatic framing that enables us to make sensible judgments at all.
Framing is pervasive, inevitable, and often automatic. There is no “neutral,” frame-free way to evaluate anything.

compare the above quote to my article on frames.

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.

Let me frame this in the narrative of my research. A wise person is one who is participating in the life of the Trinity, involved in a dynamic relationship with God in ever-deepening layers of discernment, aware and in tune with both the Word of God in scripture and also the Word of God in the World, following the prompting of the Holy Spirit to know what is best in each particular moment for the good of the other and the best interest for all.

A wise person is improvising in the Trinity’s Jazz band, yes?

Thank you Spirit, for using Twitter to lead me to this reflection today. Thanks for listening.

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