Ogden Nash has a delightful poem called “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” that explores comically the classic distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission. He warns us not to bother our heads about the first kind, “because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn’t be committing them.” It is through the sins of omission that we get bitten. These are the things that “lay eggs under our skin.” What we do wrong is often less harmful than our failure to do good. Our wrongdoing is so often powered by an energy that can be converted to good. The secret of sin does not lie in our energetic but misdirected action; it lies in our inertia and forgetfulness, in our inner deadness, denial, and boredom. The secret of hell lies in our not loving, in our not risking, in our withholding. Evil is our paralysis in the face of love’s invitation, our great refusal.Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man
by Ogden Nash
It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of
omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people,
from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.
I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as, in
a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don't bother your head about sins of commission because however
sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn't be committing
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you get really painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven't taken out and the checks you haven't added up
the stubs of and the appointments you haven't kept and the bills you
haven't paid and the letters you haven't written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of
Namely, it isn't as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every
time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn't get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forgot to pay a bill;
You didn't slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let's all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this
round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven't done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn't do give you a lot more trouble than
the unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind
of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.