Crazy, Mentally Ill, and Meshuga
Followers of this blog seek to become experts in a branch of personal interactions referred to as name-calling. Among the words and phrases used in these interactions are “crazy,” “mentally ill,” and “meshuga.” In today’s post, I hope to weave a little narrative around their use in a manner that might take the sting out of them.
The Broad Use of These Words
These terms are often used so broadly that they mean the same thing as other words and phrases thrown at someone, such as “jerk,” “piece of trash,” “stupid idiot,” etc. When used like this, they all mean nothing more than the angry party strongly doesn’t like what the other party did. They serve as a type of exclamation point.
“I don’t like what you did,” is not as emotionally packed as, “Listen, you crazy idiot, I don’t like what you did!” Nor is it as emotionally packed as, “You must be mentally ill to do something like that, you jerk!” Nor is it as emotionally packed as, “Oy veh, you putz, you got to be meshuga to do something like that!!”
Of course, it is perfectly possible to convey emotionally packed exclamations without the use of these words. My mother was a master at this. Her abilities to clearly define what she objected to and to vary her tone of voice were all the tools she required to amply communicate to people where she stood on an issue.
The Special Similarities of Crazy, Mentally Ill, and Meshuga
Now, in addition to being used as general insults, “crazy,” “mentally ill,” and “meshuga” can also be viewed as falling into a group of ideas that have more similarities than most of the other insults that might be picked at random. That is, I would guess that “crazy” and “mentally ill” are viewed by most people as being more alike than “crazy” and “jerk,” even though each could be used as general insults.
It is important to note that there are people in our communities that have adopted a particular narrow use of the term “mentally ill.” To illustrate this, Margaret believes she has a mental illness and values that she has come to accept that about herself. For her, conflicts spring up when she hears someone use the term, “mentally ill” in its more broad, general insult manner. For example, let’s say Margaret is sitting in her backyard, and she hears that her neighbor, Tim, has gotten into a conflict with Ron. Suddenly she hears Tim shouting at Ron that he is a no good mentally ill idiot!!! Even though the conflict has, in a sense, nothing to do with Margaret, she becomes angry with Tim for using the term “mentally ill” in this broad, general insult manner. There is actually no law requiring that Tim adopt the narrower meaning that Margaret uses, but she is still outraged at him.
Who Should Get to Decide When it is Proper to use Terms Such as Crazy, Mentally Ill or Meshuga as a general Insult or in Some Particular Narrow Sense?
The actress, Marlene Dietrich, when asked if she believed in God, replied, “If there is a supreme being, he’s crazy.” In some religious communities, she would have been viewed as crazy for saying this. Meanwhile, Dr. Sigmund Freud, who is thought of by many as having been a great expert on mental illness, believed that all religious people suffer from a mental illness. Dr. Carl Jung, an equally great expert on the subject, disagreed with Freud, believing instead that religious people, even people today viewed as psychotic, may be in touch with deep and ancient truths.
When I was a young boy growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach, I heard people from time to time being called a “meshugana,” which I was told means in Yiddish, “a crazy person.” What was unique about how the Yiddish term was used in Brighton Beach, is that as soon as someone was said to be a meshugana, it was very common to have someone stick up for that person with the words, “Hey, everyone has their own mishegas.” Loosely translated, this means that we all have a little craziness within us, so let’s not pretend to be so high and mighty by putting someone down like this.
Now, for people who want to know if they are really mentally ill, they can get the latest version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which was developed by the American Psychiatric Association. I happen to have a copy of it, and as I’ve been studying its pages, it has become apparent that with little imagination we can all be viewed as having some mental illness. That works out pretty good for psychiatrists because this way they never have to turn away any customers who come to their office seeking to become their patients.
But what if we really want to find out if we really, truly are crazy? Fortunately, there is now an alternative to the DSM, which can finally set us straight. It’s called the Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas (DMOM), and as the ad for it explains, the authors divide
all mental disorders into two realms: mishegas major and mishegas minor. And for each of the sub-categories it analyzes… yenta, kvetch, alter kocker, shnorrer, dementia-with-benefits, etc…THE DMOM will enable readers to transform ordinary tsuris and mishegas—the glooms, blues, angsts, and general chazzerie of their lives—into transcendent and easy-to-understand categories. It will turn kvetching into kvelling and guilt into gelt, so that readers will learn to live at peace with their inner mishegas and to treasure its precious and life-giving absurdities.
Well, I have nothing that can top that, so until we meet again, don’t let the insults get to you.