Insurance is built on an interesting premise: the more you suffer, the more you gain.
If someone leaves a tiny scratch on your car while parallel parking, insurance might cover enough for a paint touch-up…but not a brand-new car. If a doctor accidentally scratches your finger, you probably won’t be able to sue them for as much as if they had transplanted the wrong organ.
In this way, insurance seems very fair. The compensation is (in theory) commensurate with the amount of suffering, loss, or hardship endured. Insurance also provides peace of mind that, if worse comes to worst, you can still hope to receive something to mitigate whatever misfortune may befall you. This is quite a benefit — not to mention, in many cases (e.g., auto insurance), a legal requirement!
So, no, I am not recommending that you cancel your insurance of any type…except for one: your insurance mentality.
“Insurance mentality” is the mindset that says…
- Suffering is rewarded. (In fact, suffering is a prerequisite of reward!)
- Only if you’ve experienced sufficient hardship do you deserve to experience joy.
- Life is a zero-sum game in which blessings must be “paid for” by commensurate deprivation, loss, or struggle.
In short, insurance mentality says: no pain, no gain.
This approach might work while settling an insurance claim, but it’s no way to live your life. It means that every pleasure must be balanced out by an equal amount of pain. It means that you can never simply be happy. It means there’s always a catch.
Even if you consciously reject insurance mentality, it can still show up in your thoughts, words, and actions. It’s behind the compulsion you might feel to justify your blessings by citing how you’ve “earned” them (through some form of suffering). It’s behind the tendency you might feel to rationalize your joy by citing previous sorrows (almost as if they were ticket stubs you presented to an usher/bouncer in the “Theater of Joy” in order to prove that yes, you have paid for your seat — you didn’t just sneak in the back!). And it’s behind the twinge of guilt you might feel if you experience success without struggling mightily to attain it.
(It’s also, I suspect, behind talent-show contestants’ lengthy explanations of the hardships they’ve suffered — whether or not they’re related to their talent — presented as “Exhibit A, B, C, etc.” of why they now deserve to experience success.)
As absurd and illogical as insurance mentality seems to me, I’m still susceptible to it. Even within the privacy of my own mind, I’ve often noticed my thoughts acting like defense attorneys, explaining to the (imaginary) jury why I deserve the blessings I’ve received (because I’ve struggled enough). I’ll dredge up all sorts of evidence to support my case, even if it’s completely unrelated to the matter at hand. (E.g., my wife’s car accident caused her years of physical pain, so she really deserves to live by the beach and be happy.)
I’ve also noticed other well-meaning people acting like insurance-mentality lawyers defending us, explaining to others that, yes, they’re now experiencing some professional success and personal satisfaction…but they worked very hard for 10 years and struggled a lot in order to get where they are. The implication here is: …so now it’s OK for them to finally just be happy and enjoy their lives.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed this tendency. In a recent Facebook post, Elizabeth Gilbert describes how, after the publication of Eat Pray Love, she spent 10 years answering questions about her “selfishness” (e.g., getting divorced, traveling, writing, and being happy) and justifying her joy:
I’ve even tried to show how my journey from depression to joy has involved suffering, in order to make people feel better. (“Don’t worry!” I would say, “I was punished with three years of despair and anxiety for leaving that marriage, and I lost a lot of friends and all my money in the divorce, too!” Because some people can only trust joy when it has been earned through sacrifice and pain…and that’s a little weird — both that people would want evidence of suffering, or that I would feel obliged to offer it.)
Yes, it is weird that we carry around these “inner insurance-mentality lawyers” who demand evidence that we’ve earned our “settlements” of joy, success, or other positive experiences. And the greater the joy/reward, the greater the suffering these “lawyers” demand! This odd logic is on full display in my all-time favorite essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” as David Foster Wallace overhears many of his fellow passengers’ justifications for going on a luxury cruise:
Everybody characterizes the upcoming week as either a long-put-off reward or as a last-ditch effort to salvage sanity and self from some inconceivable crockpot of pressure, or both. A lot of the explanatory narratives are long and involved, and some are sort of lurid. Two different conversations involve people who’ve just buried a relative they’d been nursing at home for months as the relative lingered hideously. A floral wholesaler in an aqua MARLINS shirt talks about how he’s managed to drag the battered remnants of his soul through the Xmas-to-Valentine rush only by dangling in front of himself the carrot of this week of total relaxation and renewal. A trio of Newark cops all just retired and had promised themselves a Luxury Cruise if they survived their 20.
(To this observation, Wallace adds one of his trademark footnotes about “the subtle universal shame that accompanies self-indulgence, the need to explain to just about anybody why the self-indulgence isn’t in fact really self-indulgence.”)
But why is any shame, justification, or rationalization necessary at all? Why can’t they simply enjoy themselves without feeling the need to “pay in advance” through their suffering? My reply is, once again: insurance mentality. They are presenting evidence to the “jury” that they deserve compensation — that they have made an equal trade: their current/forthcoming happiness is offset by their past unhappiness; therefore, the cosmic balance of joy and sorrow remains undisturbed.
Except here’s the thing: The universe isn’t going to be any worse off if you’re simply happy (or healthy or successful or blessed in any way…or in many ways). In fact, the universe will be better off because of your joy, success, health, and other blessings!
Don’t worry — you won’t be committing insurance fraud if you enjoy blessings without suffering great pain for them! The universe is not litigious. The blessings you receive are not some cosmic settlement. They need not be commensurate with past pains.
We can simply be happy and enjoy our blessings without feeling the need to make a “co-pay” of unhappiness. We can experience success without staking out an enormous premium of struggle. And we can receive blessings without the curse of guilt.
So, by all means, let’s all keep our car insurance, our health insurance, and any other insurance that gives us peace of mind.
But let’s cancel our insurance mentality!