The poem, which you can read at the Poetry Foundation, starts with:
Out of every hundred people
those who always know better:
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.