What Everybody Really Wants
We’re often in situations of wanting to help and be kind to others, but of not knowing quite what they might be in need of. We’d like to deepen our connection to them and be of service, and yet lack a real grasp of what we could plausibly offer them; their minds seem impenetrable, their problems opaque.
At such moments, we would do well to remember that we all possess a superpower, a capacity to give people something we can be sure they fundamentally require, founded on a primordial and basic insight into human nature: that all of us are in deep need of reassurance. Life is a more or less ongoing emergency for everyone. We are invariably haunted by doubts about our value, by concerns for our future, by shapeless anxiety and dread about things we’ve done, by feelings of guilt and embarrassment about ourselves. Everyday brings new threats to our integrity and except for very rare moments when we and the world feel solid, there is almost always a background throb of unwellness in our minds. It doesn’t matter whether they are old or young, accomplished or starting out, at the top of the tree or struggling to get by, we can count on one thing about anyone we meet: they’ll be beset by a sense of insecurity and, beneath some excellent camouflage, to a greater or lesser extent, of desperation.
That means that, more than they perhaps even realise, they’ll be longing for someone to say something soothing to them, a word to make them feel that they have a right to exist, that we have some faith in them, that we know things aren’t always easy for them and that – in a vague but real way – we’re on their side. It could be a very small, and barely perceptible remark, but it’s effect might be critical: that something fascinating they said sticks in our minds, that we know the past few months might not have been simple for them, that we’ve found ourselves thinking of them since our last meeting, that we’ve noticed and admire the way they go about things, that they deserve a break and are, we can see, carrying so much.
It’s easy to mistake the work of reassurance with flattery. But flattery involves a lie to gain advantage, whereas reassurance involves revealing genuine affection – which we normally leave out from embarrassment – in order to bolster someone’s ability to endure. We flatter in order to extract benefit, we reassure in order to help. Furthermore, the flatterer tells their prey about their strengths; the reassurer does something infinitely more valuable: they hint that they have seen the weaknesses, but have only tolerance and compassion for them on the basis of sharing fully in comparable ones themselves.
‘I think you’re going to be fine’; ‘everyone goes through things like these’ ‘you have nothing to be ashamed of…’ The words we need to say to reassure aren’t new, they can be the most apparently banal of sentences, but we need to keep hearing them because our minds are extremely bad at holding on to their nourishing truths. They are, furthermore, lines that are a great deal more valuable and inclined to stick if someone else addresses them to us than if we try to rehearse them by ourselves.
In 1425, the Florentine artist Masaccio painted a rendition of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden on the walls of Florence’s Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. We need not believe in any of the supernatural aspects of Genesis to be profoundly moved by the horror stricken faces of the banished couple. And if we are so, it is because what we see is a version of an agony that is essentially universal – for all of us have effectively been cast out of the realm of comfort and plenty and obliged to dwell in the lands of uncertainty, humiliation and grief. All of us are beset by woes, all of us are worried to the core, longing for rest and in urgent need of forbearance and gentleness.
Part of the responsibility of living in a time that broadly no longer believes in divine reassurance is that we are each of us given a role to play in delivering part of that reassurance ourselves, to our fellow sufferers, in ordinary moments of our ordinary lives. We cannot generally know the precise details of other people’s travails, but we can always be sure of a few vital things from the outset: that they are at some level in a mood of pain and self-suspicion, that certain very big things will not have gone right, that there will be intensities of loneliness, anxiety and shame at play, and that it could hence make a very big difference indeed if we were able to say something, however modest and even unoriginal, to bring a little reassurance into their day.