The Quiddity Of Life Insurance

Annie Dillard’s essay entitled Total Eclipse is considered to be a masterpiece of literary nonfiction. Dillard describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. She describes a total eclipse in terms that define its uniqueness.

“The second before the sun went out, we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming and screamed before it hit.”1

A total eclipse may be the very best way for human beings to experience “the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.”2

A total eclipse is its own thing, unlike all other things.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “we should attempt a total surrender to whatever atmosphere is offering itself at the moment…and make the determination to rub one’s nose in the very quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it is.”3

That is what Dillard was intending to do in her essay.

Author, speaker John Piper includes Lewis among the writers that influenced him most. Specifically, Lewis taught Piper to attend to the realness of things. “To wake up in the morning and to be aware of the firmness of the mattress, the warmth of the sun rays, the sound of the clock ticking, the sheer being of things (quiddity as he calls it). He helped me become alive to life. He helped me to see what is there in the world—things which if we didn’t have them, we would pay a million dollars to have, but having them, ignore.”4

Note: The word “Quiddity” (noun) comes from the Latin “quid” which means “what.” It is defined as “The very essence of; the inherent nature of something or someone.”5

Synonyms of quiddity include actuality, essence, existence, integral, quintessence.6

Quiddity is the “thingness” of a thing. The “thisness.” The essential essence or “whatness” of what makes something what it is.

Question: What is the quiddity of that thing we call a butterfly? Is a butterfly’s “thingness” the entirety of its history? In the moment that we see a butterfly are we also imagining when it was an egg, a caterpillar, its chrysalis, where it traveled, or all the flowers it visited?

When we explain something, we do not generally divide it into its parts, describe how all the parts behave, or present its entire history. When telling someone about our new car we may elaborate on some of its features, but we are not likely to delineate every part and how they work together to make it run.

The Quiddity of Life Insurance
Life insurance has its own quiddity, thingness, thisness, and whatness that makes life insurance what it is.

Question: As independent financial professionals, how adept are we at communicating winsomely, and engagingly, the quiddity of life insurance?

Starting point:

  • Life insurance is a contract between an insurer and a policy owner.
  • Life insurance is a promise made by the insurance company in exchange for the policy owner’s premium payments.
  • Life insurance policies identify the following:
    • The insurer: A company regulated by state insurance departments.
    • The policy owner: The person who owns the policy.
    • The insured: The person whose life is insured.
    • The beneficiary: The person named by the policy owner to receive the policy’s death benefits.
  • Life insurance pays a death benefit to the person named by the policy owner when the insured dies.
  • The beneficiaries can use the money for whatever purpose they choose.
  • Life insurance is regulated at the Federal and the State level.

So far, we have only described the parts. We have only kicked the tires.

We have not yet treated potential consumers as the feeling, relating, seeing, listening, smelling, receptive creatures that they are. Nor have we begun to explore the magical, relevant, terrifying, and ecstatic aspects of life insurance.

Time to take it out for a test drive!

  • Life insurance solves a frightening financial problem. When a person dies, earned income disappears. A spouse, children, or anyone dependent on the insured financially, will be left without support.
  • About the time unpaid bills are overdue, and the grieving family members are under severe stress, the life insurance death benefit arrives, providing funds to meet financial obligations.
  • Money appears in time to help relatives pay for burial and other end-of-life expenses.
  • Life insurance provides a replacement for the income that the insured intended to use to cover these expenses:
    • Mortgage payments.
    • Childcare to replace the loss of a stay-at-home parent.
    • Giving freedom for family members to make it through college.
    • Debts such as car loans.

Wait! Have we really arrived at the very quiddity of Life Insurance? No. Try these:

  • Life insurance is designed to help people take care of their loved ones who are dependent on the Insured’s income.
  • Life insurance helps a family keep the family business in the family.
  • Life insurance helps responsible people experience one less thing to worry about at night.
  • Life insurance avails thoughtful people the opportunity to finish life well by providing for loved ones even in death.
  • Life insurance prevents economic hardship from being added to emotional distress.
  • Life insurance replaces obstacles with opportunities.
  • Life insurance provides peace of mind.
  • Life insurance can be a gift of love.

Now that, finally, is the quiddity of life insurance.

In her essay, The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson points out that “We know only what we know, only in the way that we know it or can know it.”7

What if we met people who were curious about a red rose in a vase on our desk? How could we persuade them of its worth? Would we start by warning about the possibility of pricking fingers on its brutally real thorns? Or would we encourage them to rub their noses among its perfumed petals? To fully explain a rose, we need to juxtapose the pain with its beauty.

We can postulate that potential consumers (future policy owners) will only know about life insurance what they know, only in the way they know it, based on the knowledge they have gained from reading or hearing others discuss it.

For the independent financial professional there are therefore two opportunities in regard to communicating the quiddity of life insurance:

  1. Enhance what people know about life insurance by providing educational, relatable, authentic, and practical information.
  2. Make it easier for people to learn more about the quiddity of life insurance by preparing engaging stories and practicing the art of highlighting the power of life insurance to fulfill dreams, activate love, and keep promises.

Annie Dillard wrote about seeing a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. “…The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”8

Dillard saw this moment, felt in her soul the quiddity of it, and wanted to share it with others.

We all want to enjoy the chocolate-ness of chocolate and the coffee-ness of coffee. Similarly, we who know its value should want people to grasp the quiddity of life insurance.

The least we can do is come alongside people to help them see what we see.


  2. Ibid.
  3. “Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life,” C.S. Lewis, HarperOne; Reissue edition (February 14, 2017).
  4. John Piper, “Books That Have Influenced Me Most.”
  7. “The Givenness of Things: Essays,” by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 27, 2015).
  8. “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” by Annie Dillard, (Published June 1, 2000 by Harper Perennial) (first published 1974).

CLU, ChFC, FLMI, is a director, vice president, team leader, speaker and mentor for Global Leadership Partners.

For nearly four decades Murphy worked in the financial services industry, and has held positions in sales, marketing, product development, training and development, distribution, agency management, and recruiting. In his latest role he was responsible for managing National Account relationships. In this role he shared business leadership and practice management concepts with business owners, marketing organizations and independent financial professionals. He is a frequent contributor to industry trade journals and a keynote speaker at industry events.

After 37 wonderful years in financial services, it was time for Murphy to give back, to share with others the training, development and experiences he enjoyed by God’s grace, and encourage others who are just starting out or seeking to grow.

Global Leadership Partners identifies, equips and sends business leaders to speak at leadership seminars in partnership with organizations primarily in Eastern Europe, but eventually, around the world. The intent is to foster development of foreign leaders who will courageously stand for strong values and a high ethical standard. This work is based on the belief that the world will be a better place when filled with leaders who lead according to proven values and bedrock principles.

Murphy is a frequent contributor to industry trade journals and is available as a keynote speaker for life insurance industry meetings and training events. He can be reached by telephone at: 312-859-3064. Email: Twitter: