The narrator of a short story in Alberto Moravia's Roman Tales says that when he was young, he amused himself by reading newspaper items "about all the possible misfortunes that can happen to people, such as burglaries, murders, suicides and street accidents."
The only one that seemed impossible to happen to him, he says, was to become what the paper called "'a pitiful case' -- a person so extremely unfortunate as to be worthy of pity without recourse to any particular misfortune -- owing, that is, to the mere fact of existing."
That phrase, and that definition, always bring me to a halt: For some people, mere existence is so terrible that they are worthy of pity.
In the story, the narrator realizes that despite his earlier assumptions, he has in fact become a pitiful case himself. He lives with his wife and seven children in dire poverty, "in a room that has nothing in it but a lot of mattresses spread on the floor, and, when it rains, the water pours down on us just as it does on the seats in the Via Ripetta." Hoping to ease their burden, the couple decide to abandon their newest child, a son, in a church, hoping someone will take him and give him a better life. But the wife becomes so distressed as they try to carry out their plan that they give up.
The story is set in post-war Rome, and it's clear that neither the state nor the church -- which banned contraception, hence seven children -- will do anything to help. In fact, a church official yells at the woman when she breastfeeds the child in one of the churches they visit.
Canada has a far better social service system than Italy at that time, and the church is not an issue, so the situations are not comparable. But in parts of the country like Metro Vancouver, segments of society are coming under increasing stress, thanks to impossible housing prices, stagnant wages and the ever-rising cost of living. It makes me wonder whether we may be creating a whole wave of pitiful cases of our own.