Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Contribution to Statistics

Contribution to Statistics

by Wisława Szymborska
Translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

Out of every hundred people
Those who always know better:
Unsure of every step:
nearly all the rest.
Ready to help,
as long as it doesn't take long:
Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
four -- well, maybe five.
Able to admire without envy:
Led to error
by youth (which passes):
sixty, plus or minus.
Those not to be messed with:
forty and four.
Living in constant fear
of someone or something:
Capable of happiness:
twenty-some-odd at most.
Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.
Worthy of empathy:
when forced by circumstances:
it's better not to know
not even approximately.
Wise in hindsight:
not many more
than wise in foresight.
Getting nothing out of life but things:
(although I would like to be wrong).
Doubled over in pain,
without a flashlight in the dark:
sooner or later.
Those who are just:
quite a few at thirty-five.
But if it takes effort to understand:
Worthy of empathy:
one hundred out of one hundred --
a figure that has never varied yet.

You fall in love with some poems such as this one at the first reading itself. In this ironically titled poem, the Nobel Laureate sums up humanity falling into different categories in terms of perceptively playful percentages that have a ring of truth.
She absurdly attaches a number to wide range of descriptors : "always good"-four, "led to error by youth"-sixty, "harmless alone, turning savage in crowds"- more than half. Her categories are in turn frivolous, silly, insightful, and jarring. And in the end this:
Worthy of empathy:
one hundred out of one hundred --
a figure that has never varied yet.
The human condition is blessed and cursed, strange, messy, wild, and weird. It is vast and contradictory, to be sure, but it is also shared. And so Szymborska reminds us that we are each worthy of empathy: Each is a whole person, the narrator of his or her life, each must be treated as a person of value and consequence and worth. Incomplete, imperfect, and valuable nonetheless.

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