DEFINITIVE: the standard, information upon which standards can be set

Those of you who know me well may remember that one of the most significant symbols in my thinking is that of the plumb line, which is pictured to the right.   It is used by carpenters and other builders to employ the force of gravity to establish a straight vertical line.  The plum bob is heavy (they used to be made of lead.)   It is on a string.  When suspended next to a wall, the carpenter can determine the true vertical.

My father was a skilled, amateur wallpaper hanger.   When he was about to hang the first piece of wallpaper he would go to the wall, hang a plumb line, rub the string with blue chalk and then pluck the string, leaving a blue vertical line that was “true.”  When he positioned the first piece of wallpaper next to it he could then complete the wall, assuring himself that the pieces of wallpaper were perfectly straight.

Watching him do this numerous times, I found myself fascinated with the principle of the plumb line.  It carried over into my adult life where I utilized the concept numerous times when teaching about setting principles and measuring one’s self against them.

The plumb line came into my thinking again when I was thinking about the word definitive.   It was being bantered about in a conversation I heard the other day when people were talking about a recently-published political poll testing the nation’s feelings about the two major candidates.   Someone pointed out that this was only a July poll, and could not be taken as a definitive standard for assessing what will happen in November.   It was a good caution, although I suspect it will be ignored for a few days until replaced by another poll of the same information.

If a poll were definitive, it would be as “true” as the blue line on the wall.    No matter what else happened between now and November, it would stand as the unquestioned standard.    That would be a foolish assertion.   There are many days to go before the election, and in that time there will be events, victories, disclosures, gaffes, and other national and global events which will affect the voting on that November day.  In the meantime, the best that can be said about the report of a poll is that it is indicative, informing, telling, or potentially revealing.

In order to be definitive something must be unalterable.  Gravity is a pretty good test of something being a “true” vertical.    I suppose that if the house were built on the side of the hill with an intention of having sloping walls one might not want to line up against gravity.  I don’t think I’d want to try to navigate in that setting, however.

Maybe that’s another teaching point:  The standard for a true, definitive principle begins with the desire for a house that is  level.  If the originating principle is something else, no wonder the standards are skewed.  Hmmm.


Photo Credit:  Elizabeth Harper Neeld

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