How I Will Live after the Pandemic

There is a miscellaneous text by Janusz Korczak (the Polish Jew who perished in Treblinka along with 200 children and staff of the orphanage he directed) that is titled, “How I Will Live after the War.”

In it, he notices how “about fifteen of them are keeping journals.” Most of the journals document life day-to-day and, occasionally, there are reminiscences about the past. However, “only once did someone write about what he was going to do after the war.”

Korczak reflects, “It seems to me, that not everyone believes the war will end. The younger ones have only a vague memory of how life used to be. And they don’t much believe, that they will grow, that they will really be big and grown-up like Mrs. Rózia today or Mr. Felek. […] But sometimes it’s good to think not just about the past, but about the future. […] I used to ask: are you happy you were born? How many children do you want to have when you marry? What names will you give them? Would you prefer to be rich, or learned and famous? It seems like just the pleasant theme with which to begin writing a journal.”

Well, it seems to me that not everyone believes the pandemic will end. And, in fact, I often find myself largely focused on my memories compared to my dreams and plans. But I think that Janusz Korczak was on to something when he said, “But sometimes it’s good to think not just about the past, but about the future.”

In the text, Korczak proceeded to pose dozens of questions about his future life:

What will I do after the war? Do I want to live in Poland, or leave and for where: to a village or a town; to a small town or a city? How much do I want to earn every day, what will my apartment be like, or my house, courtyard, or garden?

Will I work in a factory, or for myself, in a shop, or a workshop – out in town, of just in the house?

What will my future be like? Do I want to live alone, or with a wife, or a sister, or a brother of a friend?

Will I get married? Will I wait a long time before choosing a wife? What should she be like: my own age, older or younger than me? Do I want to be rich or very rich? Will I become rich immediately, or will I take a long time, collecting one złoty at a time? What will I buy straightaway, what later, or will it be everything at once?

[…] What sort of things will I eat, how will I dress? Will I have many clothes and what will they be like? What will I read and how will I spend my free time after work?

[…] What will my best years be? Will it be in my twenties, or thirties, or forties? What difficulties will I struggle with in life? Do I want to have adventures, or is it best to live quietly, without changing my home, or neighbours, or way of life?

Even though Korczak did not survive the war, I think we can see now the nobility of soul in looking toward the future with hope and considering all of his own responsibilities in shaping it.

Plus, all of these questions about the future are deceptive because they are not about the future only. To raise such questions is to reveal something of his character at the moment that he raised them.

Sometimes we might suggest to ourselves (or have it suggested to us) that the honourable thing is to endure a war, a pandemic, an illness, etc. patiently and without any conceits or pretensions about an unknown future.

But this shows a poverty of imagination. It is also honourable to keep our minds and hearts fixed on a vision of what lies ahead, of ideals, and of wishes and dreams.

Korczak ends his piece with this gem of an anecdote.

In primary school in Kiev, the teacher set an essay:
“What do I want to be when I grow up?”
One boy wrote:
“I want to be a wizard.”
They began to laugh at him, but he retorted sagely:
“I know I’m not going to be a wizard, but you asked me what I wanted to be.”

And so, what do you want to be after the pandemic?

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