As I approach the release of my first full-length novel I find myself pondering the meaning of success and failure. “Voices in the Night” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the first book of poetry I ever read. When I bought it, some 15 years ago now, I inserted my bookmark at my favorite poem, “Success and Failure” and I never took it out. For the last 15 years the book has sat on my shelf with the marker protruding from the top and I revisit his words again and again. The poem is a comfort to me when I feel the sadness of defeat and it is calming to me when I feel the terror of actual success. In my mind, Bonhoeffer perfectly describes these two states that, in the end, can feel quite similar.
Success and Failure
By: Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his collection “Voices in the Night”
Translation by: Edwin Robertson
Success and failure
suddenly strike and overpower us,
both the same at first,
like the touch of burning heat and freezing cold,
flung from distant heavens
blazing and threatening,
over our heads.
Those visited stand bemused
amidst the ruins
of their dull, daily lives.
Success is full of foreboding
failure has its sweetness.
Without distinction they appear
the one or the other
from the unknown.
Both are proud and terrible
People come from far and wide,
walk by and look,
pausing to stare,
half envious, half afraid,
at the outrage,
where the supernatural
blessing and curing at the same time,
entangle and disentangle,
sets forth the drama of human life.
What is success and what is failure?
Time alone distinguishes.
When the incomprehensible, exciting
lapses into wearisome waiting,
when the creeping hours of the day
first reveal the true outlines of failure,
then most give up
of oft-repeat failure,
disappointed and bored with themselves.
The hour of steadfast love,
the hour of the mother and the beloved,
the hour of the friend and the brother.
Steadfast love transforms all failure
and gently cradles it
in the soft
radiance of heavenly light.