4/30/2013

Hopelessness: A Subjective Risk in Tragedy

To realize hope’s potential strength, it must be acted upon. Good faith performance of the adjuster’s duties is a great start.

By Barrett A. Evans

Centuries ago, the ancient Greeks used to tell the story of Pandora to explain why there were so many misfortunes in the world. The gods had given Pandora a mysterious box and told her never to open it. Her curiosity got the best of her, though, and she cracked open the lid. Out poured all of the troubles that beset humanity—grief, plagues, sorrows, and a litany of other evils. In desperation, Pandora slammed down the lid before the box had completely emptied—thus ensuring that humanity would continue to have hope as it struggled against all of life’s ills.

One of the many difficulties surrounding a painful tragedy is the feeling of hopelessness. Violence cannot be undone and lives cannot be brought back. Not all wounds heal. Although the world is obviously and tragically flawed, an overdeveloped sense of hopelessness can easily distort our view of reality and blind us to the many positive ways in which we can influence our world for the better.

Those of us versed in the general insurance principles know the dangers of subjective risk. In Foundations of Risk Management and Insurance, author Eric Wiening defines subjective risk as “the perceived amount of risk [or] uncertainty based on a person’s opinion.” As subjective risk is often based on personal bias and subjective feelings, it can have a tenuous relationship to reality. There is little question that tragedies can distort our subjective sense of risk by creating an exaggerated perception of the hazards of daily life. Tragedy also can engender an inflated sense of pessimism about what we can do to influence the human condition positively.

While it seems an inescapable fact that evils and ills will continue to plague humanity, it also seems clear that there is never a time when individuals cannot do things—great or small—to help make the world a better place. When looking at the course of human history, it is easy to see the innumerable acts of men and women that have lessened suffering and limited the effect of life’s many woes. Medicines have been created, labor-saving devices invented, charities built, justice administered, surgical techniques developed, acts of kindness performed, and words of encouragement spoken.

In our own industry, countless insureds and claimants have been spared financial despair through the faithful work of adjusters. Homes have been rebuilt, businesses restored, medical bills paid, and financial ruin avoided.

To realize hope’s potential strength, it must be acted upon. Good faith performance of the adjuster’s duties is a great start. Perhaps there is more we can do, though. In the words of Maxine Hong Kingston in The Fifth Book of Peace, our best response to destruction could be centered in the impulse of creation:

Children, everybody, here’s what to do during war:

In a time of destruction, create something.

A poem.

A parade.

A community.

A school.

A vow.

A moral principle.

One peaceful moment.

It is true that there are always many people you cannot help in this life. But there are always many that you can. Help the ones you can, and let hope live on.  

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CPCU Society membership, the CPCU Society Ethics Committee, or the author’s employer.



Barrett A. Evans, CPCU, AIC, is a regional claims manager for County Reinsurance, Ltd. He is a member of the CPCU Ethics Committee and has been a CLM Fellow since 2012.

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