Life lessons from the humble plumb bob

I love tools of all kinds, but among my favorites are the simple, old-school types, like the plumb bob: it’s uncomplicated, of ancient origin, requires no batteries or need to send it to a repair shop, has no electronics prone to failure, and it sits on one of my crowded shelves, collecting dust like so many of my other tools, but ready in an instant when I need its valuable services.

The humble plumb bob bought about three decades or so ago now strung properly.

My current “RV improvement project” is the installation of a new mini split system. This project is challenging due to the complexity of the units themselves (indoor head unit and outdoor condenser), and the many tools and specialized knowledge required for installation.

I don’t consider myself a skilled craftsman but fit into the category of the “jack of all some trades, master of none” description. Though I have spent almost 40 years of my life as a contractor, built my own house and have done countless home improvement projects, I’m not what one might consider naturally gifted in the area of working with my hands: mine is an acquired “talent” and not an inherited one.

I’m a slow learner and it takes me a long time to figure things out. One of my favorite quotes that accurately sums up one of my other possible talents—perseverance—comes from the prodigious William Carey:

“If one should think it worth his while to write my life, I will give you a criterion by which you may judge of its correctness. If he gives me credit for being a plodder, he will describe me justly. Anything beyond this will be too much. I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.”

This stubborn “stick with-it-ness” is a virtue I’m grateful to have been blessed with (inherited and not acquired) and has been instrumental in allowing me to taste the small amount of success I have been fortunate to achieve in my mostly unremarkable life.

Plumb bob next to its original packaging (which I still have).

Which brings me to the subject of this post: the humble plumb bob, a tool I purchased new, I believe, perhaps as long as 30 or 35 years ago, maybe longer.

This is not an instructional “how to” article on the proper use of this tool but rather on some interesting insights into my own way of thinking and personal growth because of the decades I’ve routinely misused it.

In short, it was not until today, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, that I finally figured out the proper way to thread the all important string line through the head of the bob. Almost 35 years after purchasing and using it. I learned something new at the ripe old age of 62.

For all this time, I had been wrongly using the tool in an awkward, imprecise manner by not properly threading the string correctly through the top of the bob but through its sides. I’ve always suspected I was doing something wrong but never had the time to correctly figure out the right way to thread the string while I was in the process of using it on a project.

The wrong way I had been stringing this plumb bob for about 30-35 years or so.

This tool is not one I frequently use, maybe once in every ten years or so. If it was something I regularly used, like a tape measure, screwdriver, trowel, or backpack sprayer, I’m sure I would have taken the time to properly figure out how to string it.

But my mini split project is allowing me the opportunity of finally being able to take the needed time to figure this vexing problem out. Since I’m not working on someone else’s house, with all the pressures associated with completing the job in a timely and profitable fashion, and since I’m doing this project in my semi-retirement years, much of the old pressures I constantly faced are gone, leaving me more time to think and figure things out.

And one other important difference is this: the internet, without a doubt one of the greatest inventions in the history of civilization. When I purchased this plumb bob there was no internet. In fact, there were no cell phones that had internet connectivity; I could not pick up my iPhone while sleeping in late on my bed on a lazy Sunday morning (like I was) and google, “how to properly thread string on a plumb bob” (like I did) and get instant answers from various sources.

Before the age of immediate access to information by performing a google search, I would have had to call the company that made this particular tool. This would entail searching for the phone number and hoping they provided a “1-800” number to call so I would not be charged for the long distance charges (outrageous in those days). Or maybe call the store where I bought it from and ask them.

I could have asked a carpenter who regularly used such a tool, but carpentry wasn’t my specialty so I didn’t have a ready pool of friendly carpenters I could ask. And if I was on friendly terms with such a tradesman, would my pride have allowed me to humble myself and admit I didn’t know something so elementary as properly stringing a plumb bob? Probably not.

Could I call my dad? No; as I have noted before in my blog, my real father and I were never close, and asking him for anything was never on my radar (he also died when I was in my twenties). I cannot remember a moment in the years I lived with him where he showed me how to use something as elementary as a hammer. Thus, all my knowledge of tools and construction work were predominantly learned through reading books. And now with Youtube, I watch many different “how to” videos and gain much knowledge from them.

Though the videos I watched did not specifically address my particular plumb bob, they did provide me enough information and insight to view the situation in a new light; then, the lightbulb in my head went off—in a flash of understanding, I discovered the solution.

I got out of bed, grabbed the plumb bob, untied the string pushed through the sides of its head (but not properly through the hole in the top like it should have), and rethreaded it through the top hole (see the picture below) in the head using a piece of baling wire to force the string through the top hole. I then pulled the string through one of the side holes, tied a knot in it, pulled the string taught from the top, and viola! the 35 year old mystery was solved.

I admit I was thrilled by this. Now the plumb bob was functioning as it had been designed to and was no longer off balance like it had been for over three decades whenever I pulled it out to use it. Did it work before? Yes, but it was awkward and required I constantly made sure the knot in the string was in a place that was positioned exactly in the proper place to make it properly function. Now, this problem was a thing of the past.

Why am I taking the time to write this? Most people could care less about a plumb bob and will never use one; the subject does not interest them. But as so often happens in life, it’s the hidden meaning of things, the message below the surface of the visible reality, that teaches us life’s—and perhaps even the universe’s—profound lessons.

What I learned was a confirmation of something I have long known about myself: that I am not a fast learner and oftentimes, it takes years, even decades, before I figure some things out—like how to properly thread a plumb bob.

The hole in the top of the plumb bob where string is threaded through; I never used it until today.

The lessons from the plumb bob are not isolated to knowing and understanding myself but bleed also, I believe, to the experiences of others who struggle like me in certain areas: being hard-headed, dogmatic, and opinionated, believing they have all the right answers and have life all figured out and packaged into tidy little compartments. Their “black and white” viewpoint on certain things are much like mine were for most of my life (but in different ways), causing us to miss out on much which life has to offer.

The message of the plumb bob is like an onion, revealing layer upon layer that offers multiple views of wisdom. This morning, as I was marveling over finally figuring out how to correctly string my plumb bob, other life’s lessons were revealed as well—like how long it might take others close to me to finally wake up and learn how to properly string their own “plumb bobs of life.”

Like mine, so much of their lives are similar to this improperly strung plumb bob: they still work but spin off balance, are awkward, and fail to operate the way they are intended. They may never come to the point in their lives until decades have passed before they realize, “Something is off balance in my life and I have to figure out where the problem lies.”

I tend to be a pessimist, looking at the glass as half empty instead of half full. Life has been brutal in countless ways, full of losses, broken relationships, and unforeseen setbacks. Yet, through these dark chapters of my troubled existence, there have always been bright spots and oases of sunshine and rest.

“Like mine, so much of their lives are similar to this improperly strung plumb bob: they still work but spin off balance, are awkward, and fail to operate the way they are intended.”

I have learned my life has been an improperly strung plumb bob: yes it has worked and continues to do so, but it has been marked for too long with unbalance and wobble. Yet like this morning, there are moments when I’ve suddenly been blessed to wake up and have the opportunity to understand how to properly string a plumb bob.

Interestingly, the metaphor of the plumb bob is one of the many reasons I have backed off from my prior evangelical and fundamentalist life of faith. In this rigid and dogmatic view of the spiritual, there is no room for learning how to restring the plumb bob. For example, if a person does not accept “Jesus as their Lord and Savior and repent of their sins…,” walking in lock step to what certain church fathers and ancient creeds have deemed to be orthodox, they are dogmatically doomed to an eternity of everlasting torture in the fiery pits of hellfire with never a hope of getting out. In this perverse view of God’s love and justice, there is no room for learning the proper way to string a plumb bob, regardless of how many eternities one might have to rethink the error of their ways.

Contrary to the popular saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” we can learn new ways of looking at life and the many paradoxes it presents. I have learned even lifelong held religious beliefs, passed down from generation to generation, can be questioned and reasoned through to the point where someone might reject what they now believe to be untrue and harmful. Can anything be set in stone in such a vast universe? That question may remain undecided for the moment.

For builders and tradespeople who earn their living using tools—like plumb bobs—it’s possible to use them in an inefficient manner that fails to utilize their full potential. I have many tools I’ve never used to their full capacity as far as what they can do because I’ve not taken the needed time to read up on all of the tasks they are able to perform.

Again, tools can mirror our own lives because most people fail to take the needed time to learn how to be better than what they are. One area of study I have long been interested in is philosophy. One of my first serious attempts to learn what philosophy was all about was a philosophy course I took at the University of AZ when I was an 18 or 19 year old freshman.

Unfortunately, the things which my professor was teaching came into conflict with my nascent religious faith. At that point in my life I could not reconcile what I thought were two radically different world views; I soon dropped the course and continued my deep dive into Christianity. Interestingly, I have now returned to studying the very subject I once thought was harmful to my development as a man, regretting that I did not pursue my love of philosophy when I had the chance for it to help mold and shape my understanding of life and my place in it.

My total commitment to Christianity to the exclusion of all other modes of thinking and belief has led me to realize I had wrongly strung the “plumb bob” that represented that specific part of my life. Because of this, my life, in many ways, was unbalanced and wobbly, but I never realized just how out of sync with life it had become in certain respects.

How this all came about is an interesting story but not the time to discuss it at length in this post. My desire is to point out that if we spend almost an entire lifetime employing the “tools of life” in an incorrect fashion, the human condition is such that we can “restring the plumb bob” in the right fashion and move forward to better, more enlightened days.