Why I Love “A Word on Statistics”

The poem, which you can read at the Poetry Foundation, starts with:

Out of every hundred people

those who always know better:

fifty-two.

Unsure of every step:

almost all the rest.

– from “A Word on Statistics” by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak

I’ve been revisiting Szymborksa’s poem over the past year, and I like it for multiple reasons:

  • Her poem offers a strange comfort. Partly, it’s the dark comfort of thinking, “We’re all doomed together.” But it’s also the comfort of connection with other people.
  • It’s a poem that helps make me more patient.
  • Even though statistics are impersonal, and this poem isn’t about any one person in particular, it still feels deeply human and personal.
  • The poem inspires compassion. Statistics often desensitize (remember this quote attributed without evidence to Stalin?), but this poem does the opposite. It makes you keenly sensitive to people: what they face, what they do, how they fail themselves and others, how they inspire.
  • There’s sorrow in the poem, because we’re a sorry lot. The poem helps make the sorrow more bearable.
  • It captures some of the limitations of statistics, including the imprecision. There’s a lot that’s unquantifiable about us.

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