I stumble into my mom’s kitchen just after 6 AM. It’s colder than the dark side of Pluto outside, and I need coffee. Mom, age 92, will stay in her warm bed for at least another four hours. I have some time to work in the quiet of the morning.
So why am I thinking of the Capuchin Monks?
Well, it all started with mom’s microwave.
A few months ago she told me she could no longer work her microwave. The control panel, confusing even in the best of times to anyone other than the Chinese whiz kid who designed it, had become a showstopper.
Too hard to see. Too many buttons. Too confusing. If you care for an older person, you understand.
“Ah!” I said to myself at the time. “I can fix this.” So I took a red sharpie and drew boxes around just two buttons on the the panel, with a red arrow connecting the first to the second.
“Mom,” I said to her. “Here are the only two buttons you need. The first adds 30 seconds of cook time, and the second starts the oven. Just repeat that process until your food is as hot as you want it. OK?”
“Ok,” she said.
We ran a test. She seemed to get it. “I am brilliant,” I thought to myself smugly. “Now at least she can feed herself when I’m not here.”
Back to the present. It’s cold. I need coffee. I want to warm up my cup in mom’s microwave. I am staring at the control panel, where my two red boxes are almost completely rubbed off, and probably not by mom. My brilliant plan failed.
I get mad at the microwave designers. “Your day will come,” I say to myself. “One day you too will be old and struggling to see and understand the very technologies you so easily master now. Muahaha!”
I want there to be a place in purgatory where designers go to spend 1000 years fumbling with overly complex controls with tiny buttons whilst devils prod them with pitchforks, demanding that their meals-on-wheels mac&cheese be heated up. Over and over they young whippersnappers will try and fail, like Sisyphos rolling his tortuous stone (almost) up the hill. “That will teach them,” I silently fume.
Then I remember such a teaching place does exist, right here on earth! It is the crypt of the Order of the Capuchin monks, a small space located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome, Italy.
I have been there. It contains the skeletal remains of 3,700 bodies believed to be Capuchin friars buried by their order. The bones are displayed in all sorts of fantastic ways, such as bone mosaics and chandeliers. Imagine if Hanibal Lecter worked for Crate & Barrel and you get the picture.
But here’s the important part: The Catholic Order of the Capuchins insist that the displays are not meant to be macabre, but rather a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth, and of our own mortality.
The crypt made a big impression on me, obviously. I am thinking about it now. The most memorable part is the last chapel, deep inside the crypt, where one finds three skeletons in repose, still clothed in their monks robes. Between them is a placard written in five languages. It reads:
“What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be.”
To get the full impact, read the message again in a Yoda voice. (“You will be. You will be.”)
If I were the head of design for any company building products that might be used by the elderly, I would post a picture of the three dead monks and their message to living over every desk.
“Think about it, my young friends,” I would say to them. “Accept your mortality, and it will not only make you a better designer, it will make you a better and more compassionate person.”
Because as the Capuchin monks would tell us, purgatory is not hell ~ it is the doorway to heaven.
About the art
The feature picture of the skull made from snow is by graphic designer Noah Scalin, the first artist-in-residence at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. He is creator of the Webby Award winning project Skull-A-Day and the collaborative science fiction universe & performance art project League of Space Pirates.
I interviewed Noah in 2014 for a who called “A Skull a Day Keeps the Doctor Away,” where we talk about creativity, Picasso, the Tau, and of course, skulls.
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