09/10/2014 06:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Chagrin of Omissive Sin

Despite my annual scholastic review, the essentials of leading a decent Catholic life remained simple and static: don't sin; repent if you do; repeat. In my mind, sinning meant causing harm to others in some way. Easy enough to avoid, right?

Any Catholic will tell you that sinning is an inevitable part of life. Though Catholics strive not to, sometimes lying can save someone from pain. Gossip is as endemic to my hometown as churches. From one confession to the next, sinners tally up their wrongs to consult in an attentive priest. Perhaps not acting at all would be the saving grace from our sins.

Ah, but failing to act is another sin entirely: the sin of omission. When learning about the sin of omission as a child, I became wary of what I did -- and didn't -- do. Back then, the sin of omission was not sticking up for kids who were picked on. It was not correcting people who believed things that were untrue. So even if you were holed up in a corner trying not to sin, you're still guilty of sin by not doing anything at all.

My early adulthood has resurrected the idea of the sin of omission, reminding me to straddle the line between action and passivity. I can see the sin of omission as someone who believes in social responsibility, doing my best to see others as brothers and sisters equally deserving of purposeful lives. Now it's easy to not do harm by others by leaving them alone, but are we committing the sin of omission? It's a difficult question, one I can't answer for anyone but myself. I try not to sin, and I try not to stand idly if I see suffering.


But when it comes to my personal relationships, I've been quite guilty of the sin of omission as of late. I believed that talking out anger, jealousy or any miscommunication could keep inflicted pain at bay. And it does, to an extent.

Unfortunately, people still get hurt when you don't do anything at all. Sometimes especially when you don't do anything at all.

In my passivity, I've still managed to tarnish relationships and hurt feelings. Sometimes it looks like forgetting to call my grandfather in the hospital and soothe his concerns. It looks like lacking responses to emails from cherished Cuban friends. And most recently, it looks like having a dear friend being the last person to know about a semester in Paris. Well, maybe not the last person to know, but at least the 140th.

In all my summer travels, I didn't get in touch with my French friend and former exchange student, Marion. I forgot to answer her Facebook message about living and working in Australia for the summer, a dream we'd discussed for a year that was finally coming to fruition. I hadn't called her, Skyped her or WhatsApped her for months. And as tough as keeping overseas relationships can be, she tried. I hadn't.

I wanted to surprise her about my visit because I knew she didn't expect to see me for a few more years. But like her phone call that I had to return, I put it off until a later date. And when I told the world that I would be studying abroad in Paris next spring, the first person who should have known was the last to find out.


It's not that I cared any less about her: I missed a few messages, was chastised for costly overseas calls and was mostly belabored by my forgetfulness. But my inaction was more barbed than any insult I could come up with. I hurt one of my dearest friends, and the ability to hurt someone like that is what often keeps me from entertaining commitments.

I freeze up in my relationships for various reasons. In college, I've invested a lot of time in developing myself and my career. My friends and family are welcome distractions... so when I don't call my brother back, it's because I know we'll talk on the phone for hours. If I need to write a paper, I don't accept invitations to friendly gatherings. Often times, I forget to respond, intending to respond later when I've had time to think out the proper reply. It often goes unsent.

Those who have expressed romantic interest receive no reply for other reasons. Sometimes, again, I'm really trying to think of the perfect thing to say. Sometimes I don't know what to say. And sometimes I hope my lack of a response says enough. If I'm not dating anyone, I can't hurt anyone, I tell myself. But feelings get hurt whatever you do (or don't) say.

I thought that no one could get mad at me for not responding. Didn't my friends and family know better than to think I didn't care? Didn't people pick up that I wasn't interested in going to dinner this Friday... next Friday... ever? But the only person who could speak for my intentions was me, and I wasn't saying anything.

Marion is not the first person I hurt, nor will she be the last. If I've learned anything about sinning here, it's that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. But when you don't, you don't always know that you're causing pain with your absence.

And with the public admission of my omissions, I ask for forgiveness from anyone whose email I never answered or whose call I never returned. I believed being an island unto myself would keep me from sinning, but it instead isolates me from those I care about the most.