“Woe to me, my mother, that you gave me birth!
a man of strife and contention to all the land!
I neither borrow nor lend, yet everyone curses me.
Tell me, Lord, have I not served you for their good?”
~ Jeremiah 15:10-11
All of us experience times in our lives when we believe we have failed or underachieved our dreams. As a writer, I have felt that way many times over. Still, the lament above from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah may seem over-dramatic until we reflect on his life.
Jeremiah foretold and then lived through the worst time in Israel’s history during the sixth century B.C. He prophesied the Babylonian conquest of the Kingdom of Judah, which resulted in the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, the fall of Jerusalem, and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon. In a reflection on Jeremiah in 2011, Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber noted that the prophet was a failure “[b]y common human standards”:
Unlike Moses, he did not free his people from slavery and he did not bring them to the Promised Land. Unlike Samuel, he did not crown a King David over them. Unlike Elijah, he did not perform miracles such as reviving a dead child or bringing fire down from heaven. Unlike Isaiah, he did not prophesy the defeat of a foreign enemy…. He died without any tangible accomplishments and … history remembers him as a broken old man who sits on the ruins of Jerusalem and cries (as depicted by many artists, most notably Rembrandt).
No wonder that Jeremiah lamented his own position in the world.
Whatever our goals in life, we sometimes get similar feelings of failure and lament about our situations. Those experiences have happened often to me as an author. For fifteen years, I labored writing and editing my series of teen historical fiction novels, The Harwood Mysteries. I faced many rejections in trying to find a home for the series, but there was one time in particular that broke my writing heart. Just when I’d felt that the series had finally found its home, a major publisher canceled my contract just months before the release date. To this day, I am in a daze over how or why I lost that contract, but I can say with certainty that its loss felt like I had failed in my writing at the deepest level.
Reflecting back on Jeremiah, God called on the prophet to faithfully speak God’s words for the world to hear, which he did, despite the destruction around him. The true measure of Jeremiah’s success would only be appreciated on earth hundreds of years after his death. In Jeremiah 31, the prophet rejoiced in predicting that one day those who had been exiled would return to Israel and to the Lord—predictions fulfilled 70 years later. Then, in verses 31 to 34, he prophesied:
See, days are coming … when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They will no longer teach their friends and relatives, ‘Know the Lord!’ Everyone, from least to greatest, shall know me … for I will forgive their iniquity and no longer remember their sin.
These wondrous predictions are the words that we most often hear from Jeremiah today because they prophesy the New Covenant fulfilled through Jesus’ life and death and Resurrection.
Returning to my own story, ten years after my heart was broken, I would find rejoicing again when Loyola Press released Shadow in the Dark, Book 1 in The Harwood Mysteries. My series now has a fourth book due in October 2022 and a fifth book in the works, and it has won many awards from Catholic, Christian, and secular groups. It also led me to the opportunity to create a radio show and podcast (The Shepherd’s Pie), which is broadcast weekly on Catholic radio (WQPH, 89.3 FM).
Before declaring myself a success, however, I must hasten to add that I still feel like an underachiever even in the midst of these accomplishments. While my series has garnered awards, sales are not as I’d hoped. While I have been blessed in producing my show, its growth as a podcast has stagnated and the massive time it has taken out of my life has been ten times what I’d expected.
There are many ways we can measure our own failures or successes, despite outward appearances. My comfort, however, is strongest when I reflect back on the hopeful words of Jeremiah and recall the wise words of St. (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta: “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.” Our success or failure is ultimately seen through the eyes of God. We cannot measure our own successes until the end of our own books of life (and the generations that follow us). Only with the vision of the Lord will the true measure of our lives and actions be revealed.
For more inspiration, try the following Catholic Teen Books:
In Shadow in the Dark, Xan feels like a failure when he cannot recover his lost memories or figure out the mystery around him.
BREACH! - Isaiah finds himself with a tiny-massive problem after a bad fall!
Three Last Things - By any standards, Carl Jarrold has completely failed as a human being. Can he figure out what he's doing wrong before it's too late?
Crusader King - the story of the young King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the leper crusader king
6 Dates to Disaster - Wendy's tutoring job with Melissa, one of the Sticks, takes a turn that gets Wendy into trouble like never before.
An Unexpected Role - after a humiliating experience, Josie flees to her aunt's summer home, but will she be able to fit in there?
Roland West, Loner - High school can be tough on any kid, but it's worse for a loner.
Image by artist Horace Vernet (1789-1863), public domain