Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Sins of Omission

A combination of yesterday's post and a post on a friend's blog that quoted an Ogden Nash poem, made me think of one of my favourite distinctions - the concept of sins of omission vs. sins of commision. Ogden Nash puts this brilliantly:

Portrait Of The Artist As A Prematurely Old Man

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 the sins of commission because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn't be committing them.
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you really get 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 beauty,
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 forget 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.

- Ogden Nash

While this may seem like a flippant distinction (and certainly in Nash's ever capable hands a hilarious one), I think there's an extremely important point here. One of the central tenets by which I try to live my life is the idea that it's better to try something and not have it work out than to not try it at all (WARNING: anyone who even thinks of quoting Tennyson at this point is just ASKING for a juicy punch in the eye). The reason for this is that the things you don't get around to doing are easily idealised. If you try something and it doesn't work out you then know that it hasn't worked out and can put it behind you; but if you don't try it at all it grows quickly into something larger than life - a spectre that blots out the meek sun of your happiness, a regret that will not go away*. Thoreau writes in Walden:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. "

That's it exactly - it's not the life you live that you regret, it's all the lives you don't. Empson writes:

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


* I don't really agree with the whole notion of regrets anyway - but that's a topic for another post

** Some of you will see the similarity between this and Type I and Type II error - false negatives and false positives. I guess my overall philosophy is that it's better to have false positives than to have false negatives - purely because the really important and wonderful things in life are much rarer and so missing out on those is much more costly then being taken in by a few mirages along the way.


Sa Re Ga Ma said...

so true... Ever danced?

Heh Heh said...

Dude, THAT is one of my favorite poems of all time. Though i'm not sure its the way i would go around living life. C'mon, we all know that its awesome to laze away doing nothing, even if you could do something worthwhile.

Falstaff said...

SRGM: Depends on what you mean by danced. If you mean have I stood about making vague uncoordinated movements on a crowded dance floor, then the answer is yes. If you're thinking something more in lines of Billy Elliot than I'm afraid no.

HWSNBF: Look at it this way - I spent half an hour of my life sitting around writing that post. Do you really think I'm going around living life at fever pitch?

ozymandiaz said...

This reminds me of a "Dead Kennedys" song that went...
Yes son
What is regret?
Well, son. The funny thing about regret is, it's better to regret something you did, than something you didn't do
And son...
Yes father
The next time you see your mother
Tell her

It's a really good song sampling Black Sabbath...

Sa Re Ga Ma said...

"Danced" as in - till u dont know who is next to u/ if anybody is watching u. Only u and the music! It is great... One of the sins of commission I have greatly enjoyed a couple of times! Highly recommended :).
p.s: A close alternative might be head banging after a couple of beers, but pure unadultrated dancing is simply unbeatable!

Falstaff said...

Oz: nice.

SRGM: "Headbanging after a couple of beers" (just a couple?) - ah, now there's something I have true expertise in.

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