What is a Perfect Piece of Knowledge?

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An allegory of sorts:

I once read the following (the source escapes me):

Our surroundings call forth certain behavior. We tend to act like students when we step in a classroom, and we tend to act like shoppers at the mall. This is . . . the logic of ‘ecological psychology’: I am not a wholly separate entity from my surroundings, but rather, my [surroundings] and I form an interdependent behavior setting.

I loved it. “Ecological psychology.” Whatta concept. It told me why I’ve always insisted on having a study/library in my house, where the kids’ clutter doesn’t roam and the kids themselves are vowed to civilized behavior when they enter. It explained why I reserve the room for calm reading, thought, and writing. It explained why I want to drink when I’m in a bar.


It’s what I call a “perfect piece of knowledge.” (1) It’s brand new to me. (2) It rings true, almost to the point of common sense. (3) It’s relevant: it explains a lot about myself. (4) It came from a source I generally trust (even if I can’t remember that source right now).

When I was twenty, a reading bug bit me. I suddenly wanted to read anything and everything. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. It seemed liked nearly every book washed perfect pieces of knowledge over me.

But then things slowed down. Everything wasn’t so novel. Now, in late middle age, the books that overwhelm me are rare. The perfect pieces of knowledge that used to hit me a couple of times a week slowed down to nibble once or twice a month, at best.

I’m not sure what caused it. Sure, my knowledge increased, thereby decreasing the number of things I can learn, but if you take my overall level of knowledge as a 20-something and compare it to my knowledge today, then contrast the incremental increase against everything there is to know, my knowledge has scarcely increased at all.

I suspect more of it is the result of lukewarmness on my part. I don’t have much time to open myself up to perfect knowledge. At 20, I had hours and hours of free time. I was a full-time student at the University of Michigan, but I still had plenty of time to read. Now I have a full-time job (45 hours a week) and a large family and a wife and a bunch of social commitments with people who can’t fathom why a person would rather read a book than spend all day drinking on a beach.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like my lukewarmness. I wish I could find more time and more perfect pieces of knowledge, or at least use my scarce free time to find perfect pieces of knowledge efficiently.

But here’s the puzzling thing: You can’t look for the perfect piece of knowledge. If you look for something in particular, you already know a little bit about it. It’s not brand new, and that means it fails the four-part test set forth above. Furthermore, I find that if you reach out to grasp it, like you want to control it, it’ll elude you somehow. Its relevance won’t hit you, or you won’t see its novelty, or you won’t even know it’s true.

I don’t understand why perfect pieces of knowledge work this way. I’ve just come to learn that they do.

I’ve also come to believe this firmly: you can only put yourself in position to receive the perfect piece of knowledge. By reading, by inquiring, by being open to new ideas. You might not receive a piece for a long time. You might go through arid stretches when it seems like all the authors are saying the same thing But if you patiently keep reading, it’ll come. From nowhere, the perfect piece of knowledge will hit you, and it’ll be worth the stretches of aridity.

If you don’t put yourself in position, though, you’ll never get a perfect hit. Sure, the perfect piece of knowledge might force itself upon you, hitting you like a thunderbolt, screaming, “You will appreciate this! This will be relevant. This will change your life.” Maybe it’ll be a billboard or something in a newspaper. If so, you’re really lucky.

And you can’t count on such Moses-like things. If you don’t put yourself in position to receive the perfect pieces of knowledge, you probably won’t.

And now full disclosure: This essay is about the perfect piece of knowledge. But if you also see in it an allegory for how grace works, you’re right.