What Everyone Really Wants – Free Ebook

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 or two 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.

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