There is a type of art called chiaroscuro, often featuring a totally black image, such as the sketch of a human head, against a totally white background. Which color is more dominant in our perception of the image? Likely the black. Why is that? Should we honor our sensory perceptions, it seems that the black image seems to assume priority by leaping off the white background, with the white simply acting as an enabler of the more prominent black.
We can apply this to our experience of evil and good. Does evil leap out at us more forcefully or aggressively than good does? Which newspaper headline captures our attention: MURDER OF THREE FAMILY MEMBERS, or another caption announcing: NOBEL PRIZE TO THREE PROFESSORS? Likely the first. Why is that? Likely because evil is more fascinating to us than goodness.
In conjunction with this, it seems likely that our omissions concern us less than our commissions. That is, the things we fail to do concern us less than what we do do. For instance, when we examine our conscience before confession, do we center our attention more on our omissions than our commissions? We tend to tally up the bad that we do more than the good we fail to do. Our failure to act is like the white in a chiaroscuro painting, simply serving as the background for the bad we do, as if there is less of our self invested in what we don’t do than in what we do do. Just as black is more prominent than white, so doing something engages us more than not doing something.
Failure to return an overdue library book weighs less on me than deliberately stealing it. Or careless-ness in calculating my income tax is less bothersome to me than deliberately cheating on it?
The gospels offer us some supporting examples. The Pharisee and the tax collector who went to the temple to pray illustrate this difference. The Pharisee focuses on what he does (it’s all good) while the tax collector, in the rear, acknowledges his failure to do what is expected of him (Lk 18.9, ff.). Jesus obviously approved of the tax collector’s sensitivity to failure to do more (good) than of the Pharisee’s satisfaction with the way he conducted himself. And of the ten lepers cured by Jesus, only one returns to thank Jesus, while nine failed to do so (Lk 17.11). Jesus’ attention was caught more by the evil of the nine’s failure to act than the good of the one showing gratitude. And He berated the practice of the Pharisees who practiced QORBON (dedicated to God) financial support of the temple, normally something good and praiseworthy, but not if it comes at the expense of failing to provide for the welfare of their parents (Mk 7.11-12).
At the last judgment, as we take our stand before God the King, we will hear Him asking us not only about the good deeds in which we engaged, but also about our failure to do good deeds, like feeding the hungry or clothing the naked or visiting the imprisoned. (Mt. 25) Our failures grab God’s attention as much as our commissions. At the end of the day we need to tally up the good we have failed to do as well as the evil we have done. That is why, in the Penitential Act at the beginning of mass, we pray: “I confess…that I have greatly sinned…in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,…”