Our culture has superheroes who have attributes and qualities that are realistically unattainable. On the other hand, there are other characters who possess such attributes and qualities as honor, integrity, charity, and friendliness, that are attainable. Such down to Earth, good people are mensches.
Even the word “mensch” looks and sounds positive and kind. The word is an adaptation of the Yiddish term “mentsh”. It is a direct adoption of the German word “Mensch”. Both words translate to the English word “man” as it pertains to human beings as in mankind (not exclusively an adult male human).
A mensch is approachable, authentic, and compassionate beyond the scope of our fictional superheroes. We don’t generally think of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and so forth as being mensches even though they supposedly perform great actions. Superheroes are not living, warm human beings like a favorite relative, the kindly old woman who lives down the street, or the retiree who mentors troubled youth.
I’ve written about my great-uncle Ivan and great-aunt Betty in earlier blog posts. They are the first two people who come to mind when I hear or see the word “mensch”. Both were salt of the Earth, friendly people. Such generous, loving folks are hard to find these days. Both were honorable people who cultivated near-perfect integrity yet neither were sanctimonious or preachy. It would be easy to place them on a pedestal, but that would dishonor them. They wouldn’t like being idolized. I’m thankful to have been born into a family that was related to Ivan and Betty.
“I try to remind people that there are a lot of good people, all colors. Then there’s some bad ones, too. But there’s a lot of good people who really care.”–Elijah Cummings
It’s very easy to think of public figures and politicians who are not very nice people. However, there are a precious few who might qualify for mensch status. The late congressman from Maryland, Elijah Cummings, had a reputation for uplifting and empowering not only his constituents, but people in general. In his official capacity, Cummings introduced actions and programs with the intent to eradicate abuse of power, fraud, and wastefulness. Cummings was a long-time advocate for youth and especially civil rights. He was a positive role model for many people.
There is only one former President of the United States who, in my opinion, qualifies as a genuine mensch–Jimmy Carter. Even though his Presidency was marred by such issues as the fuel crisis and the Iran hostage situation, many historians label Carter as a mediocre President who was unable to get around his adversaries’ roadblocks.
After leaving office, Carter has become known as a great humanitarian and philanthropist. His personality shows his idealism and compassion. Although he is quite elderly, Carter continues with his hands-on work by building houses for the needy, and overseeing real work aimed at bettering the world. Carter is one of those rare famous people who is unprejudiced and is a true egalitarian. He is trustworthy almost to a fault. He seems to have internalized sympathy for the common people of the world and accepts our natural limitations. He’s an objective observer of society and sincerely wants to make the world a better place for all of us.
All things considered, I feel very fortunate to have grown up with a sense of observing people who were hardworking, intelligent, and good to their cores. The mensches are the ones who most profoundly inspired me because of their authenticity. Their down to Earth approach to life shows that anybody can do what they do, if we truly want to do it.
Mensches are authentically good people with honest values who want to do the right thing. They honestly try to be helpful without being overbearing or making a fuss. It’s good to know, to spend time with, and love a mensch.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders a quote from author, entrepreneur, and podcaster, James Altucher. “Most people are not good people. In business, in art, in almost every ‘world’ I’ve been in, most people I’ve met are pretty gray to black. It takes practice to be the person who is a source of compassion and honesty.”