Who is a Mensch?

One of my fellow physicians lost his father after a long bout with cancer. As I approach the funeral tomorrow I am reminded of the Yiddish word mensch which is frequently used at eulogies to praise the departed.

It refers in general to any human being but the profound and implicit connotation is that of a special person–one who has exhibited, throughout their life, a significant degree of compassion, kindness, humor, charity, ethical and moral behavior. I have always regarded it as the highest of compliments.

Of late I became aware of another connotation to the word. Mensch implies the concept of an individual who has had to overcome obstacles or burdens.  Someone who has struggled at times but has not allowed themselves to become infected with self-pity, anger, hostility or selfishness.

Although I did not know him well, I have come to understand that my friend’s father had battled this form of cancer for nearly twenty-five years. Such a burden could easily darken each day with dread and despair . Aparently it did not do so for this gentleman. He chose to embrace each day as a gift to be chershed.

I have come to understand that all lives, everyone’s , no matter how blessed they may appear from the outside, as challenged by obstacles and burdens. Some far more than others. It is very easy at times to regard the weight of such troubles as overwhelming and our attempts to overcome them are feeble and hopeless.

The challenge we all face is how to find meaning and joy in the face of suffering. We can easily succumb to the weight of negative feelings and seemingly insurmountable problems. We can allow this virus to infect all aspects of our being. We can easily slip into depression and question the value of living at all.

The mensch is someone who confronts the burdens and obstacles, does not avoid or deny their importance, but defies them to deprive him/her of the beauty that animates the world around us. The mensch does not blissfully ignore the reality of the world, its challenges or difficulties, but chooses to find an island of peace in a sea of chaos.

This additional understanding of the term mensch adds a subtle but meaningful quality to the term which elevates it my mind to an even more powerful expression of deep admiration and respect.

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