A Zen Moment In The Men’s Room

Image by KM Cheng

Life has many lessons to teach me, and lately I’ve been finding that school is always in session, often in unlikely places.  For example, I recently travelled to a supplier’s factory to review a production run of parts they were making for our company.  Prior to heading into the factory, our hosts asked if I’d care to use the restroom, and I agreed.

All of the equipment in this restroom was automated.  The lights switched on as I entered the room, and all of the toilets and urinals were outfitted to flush automatically.  There were three sinks with sensors to turn the water on and off – I had to move to the second sink when the first wouldn’t cooperate with me.  As I rinsed the soap off my hands, I glanced to the wall to see what was next.

It was just as I’d feared: an automatic paper towel dispenser.

Whose bright idea was it to install motion detectors under paper towel dispensers?  I was perfectly happy pulling the towels out by hand or even pumping a little lever to dispense the towels.  When it comes to getting my hands dry, I’m batting a thousand using standard paper towel dispensers, but their automatic cousins have thwarted me completely.  What purpose does this automation serve?

With a rising sense of foreboding, I held my dripping hands under the open maw of that accursed machine.


I waved my hands side to side.  Still nothing.  I raised them higher and waved again, harder this time, but to no avail.  A full roll of paper towels was visible through the smokey-clear plastic cover, but I could find no combination of hand position and movements that could coax even a sliver from that machine. 

“They install these things to frustrate you to the point you give up and don’t actually use any paper,” I muttered as I hurried out the door with wet hands, feeling rushed and slightly embarrassed for having been so long. 

As it turned out, the factory visit went very well that day.  The production run exceeded everyone’s expectations and we were able to wrap up our business ahead of schedule.  I decided to make one final stop in the restroom before leaving for the return trip home.

I recall feeling happy and relieved that the trip had gone so well.  There had been a lot of pressure from my company to make this trip successful.  As I was pleasantly reflecting on how the good news would be received back at the home office, I casually reached for a paper towel.

The dispenser whirred into life. 

The noise of the dispenser instantly drew my attention back to the moment.  I stared in surprise as a fresh paper towel rolled out of the dispenser.  Actually, I was shocked to the point that my jaw dropped.  Yes, I know how silly that sounds, but it’s true.  Up until that point, I had given up hope of ever getting a paper towel dispenser to operate automatically for me.

I had to try it again.  Could I get the dispenser to work a second time?  I focused on my hand, trying to recall how I had moved it before, and passed it under the dispenser in one slow, fluid motion.  The dispenser obligingly spit out another paper towel.


I danced like a prize fighter, my fists pumping over my head in victory.  It really is the small things in life that get me juiced up…

I had been moving my hands too fast.  The motion detector hadn’t seen my too-rapid waving, just as I can’t see the beating wings of a hummingbird.  When I slowed down and moved with purpose, then I experienced success.

You could also argue that my relaxed and confident attitude was a factor in successfully attaining what I desired, but we’ll save that thought for another post. 

Where else in my life am I not succeeding because I’m in too much of a rush, focused on what’s coming next, not truly present?  How have my important relationships suffered because I was in a hurry?  How many mistakes have I made in haste? 

And so it was that the restroom taught me its lesson: we live in a world that pushes us to do more each day.  We work harder, faster, striving to be more efficient.  We take pride in our ability to multitask.  We admire people who are over-scheduled.

But there is a simple question that we frequently forget to ask in our haste: am I being effective?

Life showed me that I need to slow down a little and focus on one task at a time.  What’s life trying to tell you?


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