There is a wonderful new urban art installation (I suppose you could also call it graffiti) in downtown Buffalo and it revolves around a slumped little panda holding a sign, emblazoned on a sticker, stuck to things. Quite often the thing it is stuck to is the little rectangle boxes that have the pedestrian push-buttons so we can cross the street without getting killed. But as to the pandas… they’re pretty awesome and as my husband and I go for our morning walk, it is our joy and delight to find more of them.
As we walked along, it was interesting that the only ones we saw repeated – well, the slogan was repeated, there were some slight variations in the other aspects of the art – were the ones that said Momento Mori. As my husband was unfamiliar with the concept, we did discuss it at length, including the odd and humorous fact that I have a friend for whom a banana is the momento mori of choice – it reminds this friend that a monkey could do their job, and thus all the institutional successes are not entirely due to their stunning leadership (which that friend does very clearly provide, I should say). Still, it wasn’t until I searched for the artist online and found the artist’s account on flickr that I was reminded of the other definition of Momento Mori, which is found in the personal profile of that artist.
I had remembered that it was a reminder of death and mortality, and I had recalled that it was often used as a protective measure against pride and hubris, but I’d forgotten that it was also a reminder of human failures and errors. I mean, this is why in the Scholastic period (think 1200’s) and on, there was a human skull on people’s desks. It was their momento mori. And it wasn’t until I considered the aspect of human failures and errors that I considered how a panda could be a momento mori.
I’m a Christian, so one of the crazy notions I believe to be true is that human beings have a responsibility to be stewards of the world. Not overlords, mind you. Stewards – the one who takes care of a resource with gentleness and humility because it isn’t really theirs. And if the Steward gets a little uppity, a little high-handed, starts pretending that they have a right to use and misuse as they please… at that point the easy functioning of the whole system starts to break down. And to our shame, the easy functioning of our ecosystem has long ago been adversely impacted by the uppity actions of human beings.
And as a reminder of human failures and errors? Yeah – the panda in all of it’s six-fingered, fuzzy, bamboo eating goodness is a pretty good Momento Mori.