Insurance policies of one form or another have been around for generations, offering protection to families against loss of home, property, or life. And while more than a few insurance companies have likened themselves to a good friend or a helping hand in a time of need, no sheaf of papers and no amount of premiums paid can match the protection that comes from our neighbors.
Less than a century ago, before homeowners' policies and auto coverage and other forms of insurance were common, affordable, or even required by law, the only reliable assurance we had came from our community.
When lightning struck a barn and it burned to ashes, everyone gathered to help rebuild it. When illness, death, or poverty befell a family, others appeared with timber, plows, or bushels of potatoes -- whatever was needed. No one "owed" these people for their kindness. It was understood that by being good neighbors they were paying premiums into a communal policy that might someday benefit them -- or future generations.
We're all aware of how sudden devastation can wipe out homes, lives, and dreams. When a succession of hurricanes struck Florida, when mudslides devastated a part of California, when a tsunami wiped hundreds of thousands of lives and homes off the map of the world, we lamented the losses.
But we also took heart from the selfless acts of good Samaritans -- people who opened their homes to the suddenly homeless, volunteers who traveled across town, across the country, across oceans to tend the sick, to comfort the grieving, to rebuild someone's shattered world. And we saw that humanity's first, best insurance policy is still in effect.
Today we have coverage against many setbacks, from termites to car wrecks. It certainly pays to be insured -- and to check your policy to ensure it covers what you need. It's an important way to protect yourself. But so is your willingness to befriend others and be counted on in times of need. Then you are helping all of us, reminding us that the most precious thing on earth is not a car, a home, or the paperwork that claims to protect them. It is each other.
So make a point of knowing the names of the neighborhood kids. Borrow a tool or a cup of sugar from the house two doors down -- and be sure to return the favor. Share the bounty of this year's vegetable garden with a new family each week. Get to know the strangers on your street. You never know when one of them might save your world.
Originally published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, April 2005.