The oldest New Year's story of all

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When I saw my friend lying on the pavement, unmoving, and a massive smash in the side of the SUV that had just hit him, I went into a kind of shock. It wasn’t the shock of inaction, it was the shock of unconscious action. We got the distraught driver out of the roadway, hovered over Michael until the EMS arrived, and directed traffic so that one disaster didn’t become two.

As it happened, the terrible physical injuries that my friend sustained were only part of the problem. As he lay on the pavement wondering whether he would live or die, the recurrent thought that ripped to the surface of his consciousness was, oddly, this: “I’ve got to quit my job.”

The accident happened five years ago. We had been in the saddle all day, and on the final climb up Old Topanga from Seven-Minute, Michael had ridden away from the group. I was perhaps a minute back. When he finished the descent of Old Topanga and made the right by the post office, the driver, who hadn’t checked before exiting the parking lot, hit him full on, much of the impact being absorbed by Michael’s helmet and skull.

Over the course of the next year the story followed a familiar line. The cyclist began rehabilitation, and learned that as a result of the trauma to his brain there were certain levels of functioning he would never regain. The lawyers were called in, of which I was one, and the driver’s insurance coverage proved adequate. He was one of those people who took insurance seriously, and had paid for a policy that was big enough to cover big damages.

The story followed its predictable course. The cyclist went on with his life, forever changed, and the driver went on with his. But as it sometimes happens, the ordinary story took a detour onto the road less traveled. One day while sitting at my computer an email popped up from the driver, a man named Eddie-with-a-Central-European-last-name-of-some-kind. Five years after the accident he had written to thank me for the way I had treated him and spoken to him at the accident site — that was a first. Defendants never show appreciation for the lawyers who are lined up to sue them.

Even more unusually, Eddie wrote to say how badly he felt and continued to feel about having caused the accident. This was striking. As the guy who sues drivers, I have always assumed that once the insurance money pays out, the offending driver flushes the whole thing from his memory. I’ve seen too many angry, cruel, and hateful drivers to think that they care about the damage they cause. In fact, at a recent accident scene the offending driver badgered the cop about whether “She could go now,” and never bothered to ask about the condition of the person she had hit and left lying inert on the pavement.

So I forwarded Eddie’s email to Michael. He too was impressed and not a little moved. Neither of us had expected to ever hear from the driver again. A few more months went by and Michael copied me on a letter he had sent to Eddie. It was as heartfelt as the letter he had received.

Crazily, this terrible accident had pushed Michael over the edge with regard to his personal life, and he shared all this with Eddie of the odd last name. The job he hated, the march into misery that was laid out for him, and the awful personal and family consequences that go along with such unhappiness had revealed themselves to be unbearable. Somehow, with the accident as the trigger, he found the courage to jettison the bad job and all it brought with it. Something about death, injury, recovery, and the stripping away of the inconsequential from the consequent had brought him to that point of transformation.

With that resolution came a huge transition that almost exactly mirrored his recovery. He left the shit job and lunged for a fleeting opportunity, the opportunity of a lifetime to turn around a struggling company in a field that was tied to his biggest passion, bikes. This and myriad other details he wrote to Eddie. It was a personal counterpunch of thanks to a guy who had stepped out on a limb to offer an apology far above and beyond what the law or social norms require.

Wrapped up in those thanks from Michael to Eddie, however, was something much more profound and transformative. It was the acceptance of the apology and the bestowal of forgiveness. An apology is a terrible thing because it puts the one who apologizes at the mercy of the person who is wronged, and in order for the apology to live it must be accepted. That’s a tall order for anyone, especially someone who’s been terribly injured by another.

In order for the apology to thrive, and to give strength and courage and shared humanity to both parties, it must also be accompanied by forgiveness. This is hard to bestow, because withholding forgiveness gives us negative power over the wrongdoer. It is the sweet hole of negativity, the happy cage of glinting, sharp-edged vengefulness that we all possess and are loath to relinquish, even when relinquishing is the right thing to do.

Michael’s letter did more than accept and forgive. It let Eddie know that good things can come from bad ones and it went one step further — it expressed gratitude for the positive change in his life and it assured Eddie that, however terrible the accident, it was something that Eddie could lay aside and no longer feel badly about.

When Michael accepted the apology and forgave Eddie, an even more amazing thing happened. First, Eddie suggested that Michael go down to the bike shop of his choice and pick out $5,000 worth of bike, courtesy of Eddie. Next, the fabric of Eddie’s own personal integrity revealed itself at a much deeper level. He wrote that he had suffered so terribly from the knowledge that he had hurt an innocent person that he sank into depression. He agonized over it on a daily basis for years, tortured by what he had done, even though it had been unintentional.

In fact, his unhappiness was so profound that he told the officers on the scene that if he had been under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the accident he would have deserved death. Here was someone with a moral conscience so sharp that it cut me simply to read his confessions of guilt. This was a guy who felt, and felt profoundly, the pain of others. This was a guy whose worst nightmare was harming someone else, and who would carry tremendous guilt for this accident a long, long time.

I thought about that and compared it with the drivers who carelessly kill cyclists, the cagers who destroy someone’s life and then fight might and main to blame the cyclist, the motorists who drink, drive, kill, and don’t even bother to stop.

Where had Eddie’s decency come from? What had transpired through his upbringing, through time, to cause him to elevate the horrible cost of harm to an innocent person to the level of a mortal sin? What sense of honor, of honesty, of human decency, of acute sensitivity could have made him so powerfully averse to harming the innocent?

What made him a big enough man to accept responsibility, offer apology, beg forgiveness, and carry around such heavy guilt for an accident that most people would have written off long ago as an unlucky day, even when the person he hit forgave him fully and without reservation?

Well, it turns out that we are more, much more than the product of our current lives. It turns out that the things that preceded us, the history of our families and our forebears, are never really past. Justice and injustice, right and wrong, good and evil are not recreated every day at birth, they are ancient lineages that those before you partook in and passed on.

Eddie’s mother was an Auschwitz survivor from Hungary.

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