Life, insurance, universe and everything

An insurance agent will whack the optimism out of you with his spiel on what risks dog you

sureshmenon

Suresh Menon | October 13, 2011



If you are feeling on top of the world, certain that whatever happens you inhabit this, the best possible of all worlds and feel convinced that you wear a rainbow around your shoulders, there’s an antidote. Just call up an insurance agent. He is guaranteed to de-rainbow you without even trying. And I am not talking about the kind of thing that happened to the poet Coleridge who had to leave his poem unfinished because he was interrupted by an insurance salesman while composing and could not get back into the mood.

There is a school of criticism which believes that the insurance agent rendered a signal service to English literature, and many wondered why more insurance agents don’t turn up at the houses of more writers and put them off their strides for good. But that is not the burden of this piece. It is not about poem-detachers.

I am talking about your ordinary, garden-variety salesman. One who is trained to say, “My dear fellow. You called at the right time. Only yesterday I was trying to convince Mr Smith (real name, Mr Jones, changed on request) to take out an insurance policy against being struck by a piano thrown from a 14th storey window. He laughed at me outright. And this morning, guess what happened?”

“He was felled by a piano thrown from a 14th storey window?” I suggest eagerly.

“No,” he says, “It was a guitar, and it fell from a tenth floor balcony. But the principle is the same. If only he had listened to me, his wife would be a millionaire now.”

All very romantic, no doubt. But what good is a millionaire ex-wife to me in a world I no longer inhabit? However attractive they (meaning insurance agents) make injury and death look to you, the catch is that you have to be the injured party or the dead party so everybody else can have a party.

If that is not depressing enough, the agent usually has a fund of stories involving people who failed to increase their coverage or sign on the dotted line. The cause of death or injury is usually the one thing they were insured against – death by drowning, injury by falling meteorite, injury by snake bite while avoiding a speeding car and so on.

In effect, when an insurance agent sells you life insurance, for example, he is taking a bet with you. He is saying you will live x number of years while you think you are good enough for y. Your prayers are the same. He hopes you don’t die so he doesn’t have to pay out the insurance, and you hope you don’t die, full stop. The problem is those around you – some of whom hope you die so it is a lose-lose-win situation, with that last bit in the favour of the third party. It is a wonderful life lesson; so unfortunate that you have to die before you learn it.

There is nothing like an ‘insurance’ chat to restore a sense of balance to an overly optimistic soul. Remember that ad about the guy rushing to catch a plane who hands over some money to his friend in a taxi to help his wife tide over till he got back home? And then the dramatic question: What if you never came back, would this be enough?

From a cheerful, happy, not-a-care-in-the-world sort of guy, our poor traveller is converted into a desperate, unhappy, the care-of-the-world-on-his-shoulders kind of guy. That’s what insurance agents do.

Suddenly you are made aware that anything could happen to you at any time and you usually lack the philosophical detachment to take all this in your stride. Especially since the stride might involve landing on a banana peel and wrenching your back for which you have no insurance because in a bout of misplaced confidence you took out an insurance for back-wrenching involving temperate rather than tropical fruits.

Whatever Coleridge felt about insurance, Mark Twain was all for it, saying, “There is no nobler field of human effort than insurance. Ever since becoming a director in an accident-insurance company, I am a better man. To me now there is a charm about a railway collision that is unspeakable.”
I rest my case.

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