Throughout our lives we do things without giving much thought to why we do them. For me, thinking what I might have done differently in the past based on what I know now, is an invitation to brooding about things we cannot change. But if such self-reflection became a daily habit it could make us grow in increments each day as we reflect on making tomorrow better.
I have therefore taken the liberty to rephrase your question: What will we do tomorrow based on what we know today?
I strongly believe that character is formed in the earliest years of a child's life and that example plays a pivotal role in that formation. Character is what we do when no one is looking. It is the inner compass that guides us through the vicissitudes of life in good times and bad. It is what gives us the courage to walk through our vulnerabilities and to remain true to our values, even in the most challenging times.
Accompanied by my uncle, Jan Mladek, I arrived in the United States as a refugee from Czechoslovakia on Columbus Day, October 12, 1950. I was met at the airport by my father, a private banker, who had come to the United States as a guest of the Secretary of Commerce two months before the Communist takeover. After many hugs and kisses and expressions of joy at being reunited after two long years, my father said something I have never forgotten: "You are a refugee, Eliska. Always remember that what you have in your heart and what you yourself put in your head, no one can take away from you."
To return to your original question, Pepper, if I had known then what I know now I would have appreciated even more deeply the relevance and meaning of his words. It is only now that I realize how much his words have guided me--and my wonderful daughter, to whom I often repeated them, in the hills and valleys of our lives.
Thanks to my father and wonderful grandmother, I was privileged to have in my heart a strong faith in God. Little did I appreciate until now how much that Faith molded and shaped me.
I am not, and have never been an angel. Religion has always been a very intimate and private matter. I have cherished our American tradition of religious liberty and respected the spirituality of others and the separation of Church and State.
As a Czech whose family was torn apart by both Nazism and Communism, I share this burden of the past with my fellow countrymen. As an American I know the importance of not living in the past. And as a Catholic whose Faith has forgiveness at its core, I see how futile and debilitating it is to dwell on that which we cannot change and how energizing it is to put our best efforts into changing the present.
Faith has taught me that adversity is a strength, and that walking through it shakes off the fear that paralyzes progress. It has taught me what a leading role forgiveness has played in my ability to land on my feet. That forgiveness is not forgetting past wrongs. But it eliminates their controlling hold on our lives. It frees us to do what we set out to do. It enables us to build bridges to those who are not necessarily our closest friends. It gives us hope, energy and resilience to move ahead. It holds the promise of rekindled trust.
If forgiveness of ourselves and others becomes a daily task, we do not spend precious time dreaming about what might have been. What we know now reinforces what we do and become tomorrow. If we honestly ask ourselves at the end of each day: "How could I have done that better?" "How could I have said that more effectively?" " How could I have reacted differently?", we avoid the temptation of negative brooding about what is done and are inspired instead to change what is ahead.
With the Grace of God, the love of my family and a heart full of gratitude, my 75th birthday finds me in the Czech Republic still working productively, surrounded and inspired by brilliant young people whose trust and friendship give me energy and courage to be able to use what I know now to help shape a better tomorrow.