I was just a teenager when I was involved in a major car accident, and I caused it. I was 16, distracted and speeding. It was a very dark night; it was raining and the red light didn’t register, and I hit another car, twisting and crushing metal. In what in hindsight seems like an unrealistic, poorly written script, I walked away without a scratch. But the driver I hit wasn’t so lucky.

Standing on the side of the road in aI walked away without a scratch. The driver I hit wasn’t so lucky. daze, I watched as the street filled with flashing lights reflected in the wetness of the road. Businesses emptied as people came out to look. There was debris spread as if it had fallen from the sky with the rain rather than exploded from what was a car.

The other driver was extracted from his demolished vehicle with the Jaws of Life and eventually flown by helicopter to a hospital that could handle his trauma. I don’t remember speaking with the police, but I must have. I don’t remember how I got home. I don’t remember anything about that night after staring at the shattered bits of plastic and metal in the middle of the street.

When the shock wore off, what was left in its place was worry and crushing guilt. In the morning, after a sleepless night, I stood in the kitchen and watched the clock on the stove tick off minutes. I was frozen. My mind was blank save for the thought that the next minute could be the minute where I am informed of the man’s death. It was at times difficult to breathe; it was fully impossible to eat, impossible to sleep.

There was a burning existential horror; a knowledge that I had violated a law beyond our earthly laws and now stood in a place somehow outside of everything. I was at the time completely alienated from G‑d, yet I felt a deeply buried instinct to pray (but denied it). I wanted to hide. I wanted to vanish. I wanted to undo what had happened.

What I wanted more than anything was to switch places with the man—to be the one hurt by my stupidity. How could I have been so careless? How could I have been so wrapped up in my worries that I could behave so recklessly? What right did I have to live if this man dies? How could I possibly be permitted to feel joy or laugh should I be guilty of taking away another person’s ability to ever feel those same feelings again? And even if he lives, would he recover? Would he spend the rest of his life impaired? What have I condemned him to through simply not caring enough?

It was a great unfairness, and I had unleashed it. I craved silence and refused to discuss anything with anyone. I felt, and was, desperately alone.

Aloneness—so different from mere loneliness—is a very dangerous place to be as a human being, a being designed to thrive in the company of another, to feel empathy, to feel a part of something. To know that separation is a silent torture. Disconnection is an attack felt at the core of a human being—an attack that strikes at the soul and radiates outward—and I was being pulled into a place of increasing disconnection.

Guilt has a tremendous destructive power. It has the ability to shape and destroy to the same degree as rage; it just does it quietly. Rage is a fire, guilt is a rot. It can hollow a person out if they don’t hear its quiet decay and answer it with action. It can be a powerful force for change, and yet the way forward is often unclear.

I have been full of fury and full of guilt, and I find guilt equally as dangerous as rage to the one being swallowed by it. It swirls with sadness and hopelessness, and dulls everything. It can lead to lashing out at others just as easily as it can lead to a crumbling of the one afflicted. Guilt folds you in on yourself, collapsing you.

As the hours ticked by into a day andI wondered how many years I took from him beyond, I began to feel this collapse. My parents sheltered me from news of the man’s situation. Was he alive because of a machine? Was his brain injured? Would he ever be the same? No matter how long he lives, I wondered how many years I took from him. My guilt for my carelessness joined with a self-hatred. Turning inward, I chastised myself for daring to fear the loss of my future while I feared the potential loss of the other driver’s life. How vile, to think of oneself at such a time, I thought. Just hours previously, I thought myself invincible. Now, I stood motionless, terrified, desperate to change the past, to write the future, to shrink into nothing.

While my memory of the exact timeline is unclear, it was some time after the accident—the ultimate fate of the driver still unknown—that I heard from his wife. She reached out to me, her voice strong, unwavering, but peaceful and calm. She asked how I was. I couldn’t speak. Speaking would be an acknowledgment of my being. She continued and spoke with a soothing confidence. She demanded I listen and hear without raising her voice, a voice completely void of anger or resentment.

She told me simply that no matter what, it was going to be OK, and that I would be OK. That she and her husband knew it was a mistake—that she was praying for me, that they forgave me. I felt a warmth spread over me, and while the guilt and knowledge that I did a great wrong was still there, its rot no longer threatened to consume me, and most importantly, the feeling of isolation was gone.

I was reminded that I was still a part of this world. I wasn’t rejected. Her strength and trust pulled me back to a place where I could turn the twisting emotions I felt into a push to become a better person—a person who understood mercy, compassion, the value of life, the beauty of our interconnectedness. What this woman had in that moment is the amazing power to forgive, and it is a power that we all have if we choose to reach for it.

It would be years before I fully comprehended the impact of my brief conversation with the woman. I had to learn many things the hard way, and the person who stood paralyzed with fear and guilt had a long way to go. Still, when my own father—a complicated man with whom I had an often challenging relationship—was dying, I used her lessons. What happened years before on that rainy night, and the phone call that followed it, had allowed me to spend time with my father in his last days in peace, shielded from anger or resentment, and I ended my time with him with no regrets. The lessons the forgiving woman and her husband gave were a great gift.

Eventually, the driver recovered from his wounds, though the road was very long. I hope he and his wife are blessed, and if they have left this world, I hope they are remembered for their tremendous mercy. She may have, as she faced an uncertain future, been filled with rage or hate directed at me. I won’t ever know, but I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t blame her if she did. At some point, however, she chose to trust, to accept and to forgive.

I admit that I don’t know if I could be the person that she was in the face of what she was dealing with. I hope I could be, though I also hope I am never tested. But her example has stayed with me, never dismissed: to ease suffering where you can, bring calm to where there is unrest and wrestle with what is pulling you down so that you may use it as a catalyst to grow and to help others grow.

Not only is forgiving precious, it isForgiveness is vital for our spiritual health also vital for our spiritual health. The Torah forbids hating your fellow in your heart, a private, quiet place. I know all too well that feelings such as resentment, anger and indignation—all feelings that are understandable in a case where one has been wronged by another—can easily grow to hate when it is tucked away inside. Most people can readily justify having these feelings because, after all, they were wronged. But the reality is that these feelings have the potential to cause us damage in the end just as much as an outside force has.

We are taught that G‑d deals with a person measure for measure, and He will reflect the mercy we show our fellow in His treatment towards us as we stand before Him with our own list of errors and transgressions.

Forgiving allows us to move forward. To be released from a consuming guilt is an opportunity for growth and great development, and to be the one forgiving, truly forgiving, is a freedom.