Fighting the Disease of Despair

BY MEGANN LIEBSCH | January 26, 2022

It’s 10 o’clock at night and there are three suitcases strewn on my bedroom floor in an advanced game of Tetris. My camera tripod doesn’t quite fit in any of them, and I’m growing frazzled.
“Maybe you should check a bag?” my roommate offers reasonably. I refuse stubbornly.
It’s not the luggage I’m worried about. Tomorrow, I’ll board a plane for Chicago to attend a three-day retreat with Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP). ISP staff has invited me to film and produce a video about the program. And I’m nervous.
Ignatian Spirituality Project offers spiritual companionship to people facing homelessness and substance addiction. The Chicago retreat is for alumni leaders—people who first attended ISP retreats and now lead them in cities across the U.S. While I’ve been on plenty of retreats, I’ve never filmed one before. Despite the assurances of ISP staff, I’m worried that, as a stranger with camera and microphone in tow, my presence could disrupt the sacred trust of a retreat.
Looking back, I shouldn’t have worried.
For the opening prayer, I set up my camera in the corner of the retreat room, hoping to be invisible, or at least unobtrusive. One by one, each retreatant tied a ribbon around a tree-like centerpiece, a symbolic prayer of shared presence. After everyone had tied their ribbon, a woman named Margo looked up at me: “Well Ms. Camera, it’s your turn.”
Just like that, I was folded into the retreat, an “honorary participant.” After all, welcome and acceptance are cornerstones of ISP.
When I returned from Chicago, ready to cut my video together, this was the story I wanted to tell — a story of acceptance, companionship and love. Check out the video here and then keep reading my reflection below.

During the interviews, group reflections and meals we shared, retreatants poured out their stories. While their lives unfurled in unique patterns, I found in each a common thread—loneliness.
“I’ve always felt like I was abandoned,” Eveline Duhart told me. “I learned to shut myself out, to cut people off so that people wouldn’t come into my life because I felt like they were going to leave me. I didn’t want to be seen because I felt so low about myself.”
Eveline is a retreat leader in Washington, DC. Now, at 72 years old, she’s joyful, quick to laugh. But for much of her life she was guarded. Issac Sneed, a Boston retreat leader, struggled to trust others, too.
“I always kept people at bay, for the most part,” he explained. “There was no real intimacy.”
Substance abuse, poverty, homelessness—these are all symptoms of a larger ill, what ISP’s executive director, Christine Curran calls a “disease of despair.”
Nearly five months since I attended the retreat, it’s this idea that has stayed with me. That in some way, we all hold a brokenness that desires connection, an interior void that we try to fill—with addiction, with material wealth, with chronic busyness.
For Eveline and Issac, ISP acknowledged that void and responded with love. At weekly reflection circles, they shared their pain, trauma and prayers, and people listened. Suddenly, they weren’t alone.
“ISP helps me to see the love that God really offers me and helps me to be able to identify when he is working in my life,” Eveline said. “And today I’m not invisible. I stand firm, I stand tall, and people see me.”
This piece was originally sent as an email by the Jesuit Conference of Canada and U.S., as a part of a weekly series sharing tools and reflection resources in the tradition of Ignatian spirituality. Subscribe to receive these emails here!

1 reply
  1. Dr.Cajetan Coelho
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho says:

    Using one’s time and energy to serve those in greater need is yet another way of combating loneliness and despair. Out here our leprosy survivors and their disabled allies are leaving no stone unturned to stand on their own feet and serve their less privileged brethren, day in and day out. They look for challenges and embrace them wholeheartedly.

    Reply

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