The Most Terrible Poverty

Today, while I was grocery shopping, I saw an old man buying his own. He was facing the shelf, a blue basket nestled in the crook of his left elbow, while his right was raised as he perused the wares.

I spared one glance at him, because it’s not polite to stare, but the image of that old man struck me with intense melancholy– and pity.

There was nothing in his attire that would inspire pity: he was, in fact, well-dressed. His polo was a bit faded, but it was tucked in well-fitting slacks and tied with a sturdy-looking belt. I imagined he must have worked an office job in his younger days, one that payed decently, because he had that air of a retired intellectual.

No, there was nothing in his outward appearance that inspired my deep pity. What haunts my thoughts even now, hours after seeing him, was the picture he painted. It was not what he looked like, or what he was doing that was immediately pitiable– it was what he implied.

The old man was stooped, his head was salt and pepper (and more salt than pepper), and his hands were moving painfully slow as he perused cup noodles.

Why? Why cup noodles? Cup noodles are the food for the young, for the desperate. Cup noodles shouldn’t be food for a stoop-backed old man with worrying signs of Parkinson’s disease.

Where was this man’s wife? His family? If there was anyone left to take care of him, why was he the one grocery shopping when he was so agonizingly slow? Everything I saw in that moment painted a painfully sad picture: an old man, perhaps with no one else to take care of him, doing his own grocery shopping, forced to buy quick, cheap, instant noodles because in his youth, perhaps while his wife was still alive, or perhaps when there was someone else to cook for him, he never bothered to learn.

I wonder if there’s anyone who cooks for him now. I wonder if there’s anyone to take care of him. I wonder if he ate those same instant noodles for dinner earlier, sat in his kitchen table, silent, stoop-backed, his faded blue polo shirt sitting lightly against him as he raised painfully slow, slow hands to eat.

Please, please let my pity have been in vain. Please let everything I saw just be a figment of my overactive imagination, because the alternative doesn’t bare thinking about.

No. Indeed, it doesn’t.

That old man didn’t look pitiable, nor did he look impoverished, but he was alone, and that, to me, was the most awful thing– because Mother Teresa knew all too well when she said that “the most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”

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