Striving, belatedly, to be a mensch

The Yiddish word mensch, (a word European Jews took from the German word for “man” [1]) refers to a person who acts the way we all recognize everybody should act.   A world populated by mensches, with mensches in charge of governments and communities, would be much different, and much fairer, than the one we live in now.

When a mensch makes a mistake she doesn’t justify it, or blame someone else, she rectifies it as quickly as she can.   When a mensch sees somebody being attacked, she steps in to try to prevent harm.   When a mensch sees you’re hurt, she comforts you.  You can be confident taking a mensch’s word they will do what they say, knowing they’ll do everything they can to keep a promise.   Here’s google’s first hit when you ask for a definition of mensch:


  1. A person of integrity and honor.
  2. Alternative spelling of mentch.
  3. a decent responsible person with admirable characteristics

It is my experience that most people consciously try to be a mensch, challenging though it is in many situations.   We all do what we believe is right, we try to treat others in ways that wouldn’t be hurtful to ourselves, we try to extend understanding to loved ones who hurt us. 

The hardest part of being a mensch is when we are hurt, especially if we are blamed for being hurt.  In that situation it can suddenly be impossible to act according to your better nature, your pain blocks the way.  You can find yourself isolated in an emotional dead-end with no way out, unless your hurt is acknowledged by the person who hurt you.  That situation can be a mensch-trap, since hurt caused accidentally is very hard to take responsibility for.  Hurt you actually, objectively, didn’t cause, though insistently blamed for it, is almost impossible to acknowledge or seek forgiveness for, because, truthfully, what am I expected to apologize for?

I put somebody I love in this position recently, for a long time, blamed her for an impossible, almost year-long stand-off and couldn’t see the unfairness of my position until yesterday, when I finally wrote a chronology that helped me see her role in a very difficult situation differently.  She is not to blame for any of this ugly shit, she and I actually worked out what we needed to on the phone almost a year ago.   

I feel awful for blaming her and will try my best to get her to accept my apology, express my understanding of why she had every right to be upset with me,  why it was wrong of me to demand an apology for her doing the best she could under circumstances so emotionally tangled that right now I can’t imagine how to explain them to her at the moment without making things worse.   I’ll stick to making amends. She would be perfectly within her rights to still be mad at me, but I hope she won’t be.

Trying my best to belatedly fix things with somebody I hurt doesn’t make me a mensch, but it hopefully makes me less of a schmuck.    If I can manage to reassure her of my love without bringing in too much of the impossible tangle (not her fault) that may need a professional’s help to untangle, I will have done the best day’s work in a long time.  I hope she’ll be able to forgive me.

[1] A certain generation of Germans refined this term to classify menschen by category, there were menschen, regular guys, ubermenschen — supermen — and üntermentschen, subhuman, contemptible excuses for humans that needed to be dealt with as harshly as possible to avoid contamination of the rest of the population.

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