Ask a Franciscan

‘I Am Consumed with Guilt and Sorrow’

Man walking on a road

I am feeling very guilty. I was driving my car and accidentally hit a man with my side mirror. I never saw him, and I don’t know if he stepped in front of me or not. The only reason I know he was hit was my side mirror flipped in, and I heard the snap. I immediately pulled over and asked the man if he was OK. 

He was standing there, rubbing his shoulder. He silently nodded his head, and I gave my apologies and went on my way to catch a train to work. Had I done enough? He looked as though he was from another country. Perhaps he was here illegally and didn’t want trouble. I decided to miss my train and go back to where this happened. He was gone. There was no sign of any further upset, such as an ambulance or police car. I am, however, consumed with guilt and sorrow. Please help me ease my conscience. Do I need to go to confession?

Thanks for writing. Your conscience is certainly alive and well! I don’t know that you have sin to confess. I am fairly certain that, even though your actions do not constitute a sin, this incident may continue to trouble you until you take a next step. That “step” is something that most probably will not aid this particular man directly, but will instead address this situation’s larger context.

What might that “something” be? Perhaps a contribution of time or another resource to the Red Cross, Catholic Social Services, a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, or some other group trying to meet the needs of very marginalized people. Your intuition that this man may not speak English could be very accurate.

Another “something” might be to resolve to speak up the next time you hear someone making a negative, sweeping generalization about illegal immigrants. Of course, this man may be in this country legally, but it is never a waste of time or energy to speak up when an entire group of people is written off as “the enemy” or “the problem.”

I think your conscience is asking you to take a “next step,” but it has not indicated a specific next step. That’s part of how conscience works. Any one of the things that I have suggested, or something else that you identify, may be that next step. Your sending me a letter was one next step—but probably not the last one needed to return you to greater peace about this event.

It’s good that you went back. Even so, according to your state’s law, what you did might be considered leaving the scene of an accident. Please pray for this man and then thank God that you have a conscience that does not allow you to shrug your shoulders and callously say, “That’s life.”

This experience could still have a long-term, positive influence on your life if you take an effective next step.

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