“A Contribution to Statistics”

“When did numbers hijack my life of words?” – Pamela Sutton, from “Forty

I’ve been thinking about numbers lately — number of cases, number of deaths, number of feet between me and the next person. I often hear people say “Oh, I’m not a numbers person,” as if it’s a choice, like whether or not you’re a cat person. We are all numbers people. From the moment we’re born and assigned an Apgar score and throughout our life, numbers such as age, weight, income, or number of likes can influence our mood and overall identity. Numbers, not unlike words, are powerful. Today’s thought-provoking poem by Nobel prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska offers a unique perspective on numbers.  See what you think.

A Contribution to Statistics 

Out of a hundred people

those who always know better
— fifty-two

doubting every step
— nearly all the rest,

glad to lend a hand
if it doesn’t take too long
— as high as forty-nine,

always good
because they can’t be otherwise
— four, well maybe five,

able to admire without envy
— eighteen,

suffering illusions
induced by fleeting youth
— sixty, give or take a few,

not to be taken lightly
— forty and four, 

living in constant fear
of someone or something

capable of happiness
— twenty-something tops,

harmless singly,
savage in crowds
— half at least,

when forced by circumstances
— better not to know
even ballpark figures,

wise after the fact
— just a couple more
than wise before it,

taking only things from life
— thirty
(I wish I were wrong),

hunched in pain,
no flashlight in the dark
— eighty-three
sooner or later,

— thirty-five, which is a lot,

and understanding
— three,

worthy of compassion
— ninety-nine,

— a hundred out of a hundred.
Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.

-Wislawa Szymborska, translated from Polish by Baranczak and Cavanagh


Which of Szymborska’s statistics struck you most? Do you agree with her appraisals of human nature?

Which day-to-day numbers are especially meaningful to you? Which numbers tend to influence your mood positively or negatively? 


“A Contribution to Statistics” by Wislawa Szymborska, from Poems: New and Collected, (trans. by S. Baranczak and C. Cavanagh, 1998) Copyrighted material used for educational or therapeutic purposes

Photo: The 100 Man Story by Denny Smith


  1. Gary, I believe 19 is for 2019 when the virus was first identified.

    We may not hold onto numbers but we put our faith in them as you said.

    As far as which numbers stood out to me, even before Patti asked:
    -77 for those living in fear. This made me feel less of an outlier
    -better now know how many are cruel. True. I don’t want to know the number. I’ll take the numbers of those others trying to help.


  2. The funny thing about numbers is that there is an expectation they are accurate — like there is a certain scientific truth in them. In reality, though, they can be as flimsy and unreliable as words. All the numbers flying around about Covid 19 are a case in point: numbers of infections, deaths, survivors; jobs lost, unemployment filings, stock drops and gains — all have an air of certainty around them when stated — but the wide ranges in these numbers, in my humble opinion, prove how numbers are really just descriptors, like adjectives, vs. absolute truths. Perhaps it might be better (or at least more accurate) to say: Number of infections? A lot. Number of deaths? Unacceptable. Economic impact? Unimaginable.

    Interestingly, even the “19” after Covid makes the virus sound more scientific and absolute. Any idea what the “19” means? Are there 18 other Covid strains? Should we worry about those?

    I’ll stop there!


    1. “numbers are really just descriptors, like adjectives, vs. absolute truths.” – I hear you. The printed word is powerful, but it seems printed numbers are equally powerful – maybe more? I’ll be thinking about that. Thanks for the reminder to question them sometimes.
      And.. this gave me goose bumps: “Number of infections? A lot. Number of deaths? Unacceptable. Economic impact? Unimaginable.” Thanks for sharing!


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