Of all places, I had an enlightening experience in a public bathroom the other night. After using the toilet, I went to the sink to wash my hands. Another woman was finishing up her hand washing as I approached the double sink. As I washed my hands, she dried hers, and then she left the bathroom. I finished washing, and then turned to my right to grab a paper towel to dry my hands.
Pushing the lever of a paper towel holder with clean, wet hands is one of these unpleasant, though inconsequential, experiences we have on a regular basis in the modern world. This is especially so when the paper towel holder is high up on the wall, as this particular one was, because the water from your hands has a way of splashing all over you. There is also the hygienic concern because you have to touch the contaminated plastic lever with your freshly cleaned hands.
Well, when I turned to the paper towel holder, I found that the woman who just left the bathroom had already pulled down a piece of paper towel for me to use. Wow, I thought, how kind and considerate! I dried my hands with the gifted piece of paper towel, and then did the same thing for whoever would wash their hands after me. I thought of the phrase, “pay it forward”, and I felt delighted that I might also bring another person a moment of happiness. And then, another quote came to mind: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.
Mahatma Gandhi was the ultimate exemplar of his famous statement, and while he did this on a much grander scale, I think he must have also meant it for the seemingly small things. Rather than becoming judgmental of others and developing hatred for the things he did not agree with, he performed actions that he wished for other people to adopt. Rather than fighting physically against Britain to free colonial India, he practiced nonviolent civil disobedience. Rather than judging poor Indian villagers for leaving their excrement on the ground, he dug holes and buried their excrement himself, until the villagers modeled themselves after him. He taught others through example, and there were myriad other instances of his venerable actions.
Getting back to the paper towels, ultimately it is not such a big deal if we have to use our clean, wet hands to push a lever to get a paper towel to dry off our hands. However, if it is something that bothers us, rather than feeling frustrated and thinking negative thoughts every time we have this experience, we can simply start doing for others what we wish others would do for us – pull down a piece of paper towel for the next person! Perhaps your actions will influence the minds of others, and increasingly more people will start doing this for each other. There are of course many other ways we could execute this lesson in our lives. It’s not about fashioning a seamless life with no unplesantries, but rather being for others and the world the change, no matter how big or small, we wish to see.