No one is better qualified to talk about isolation than Terry Waite – a man who endured 1763 days (almost 5 years of his life) as a hostage, spending almost four of those years in solitary confinement with no daylight in the most terrifying conditions.
I had the honour of interviewing Terry for my forthcoming books on ‘loneliness’ and ‘hope,’ and he had some fascinating insight about our current situation of worldwide woe, which I'd like to share here.
I was 13 when Terry was taken captive and 17 when he was released; that’s almost my entire teenage years. And I’ll never forget the collective relief of the nation when the man who holds a special place in our hearts was finally released. He went straight to Trinity Hall, Cambridge and wrote down his account of what he’d experienced; words which had been circulating in his head during his time in captivity. That account became his first book, Taken on Trust.
Using solitude as an opportunity to use our imaginations creatively is something Terry suggests we all try to do during this time of uncertainty and social isolation.
And while he understands that people are finding it hard to bear, he recommends acknowledging that our feelings of fear and frustration are normal human emotions that we all experience, before using them to create something.
- “Don’t let your feelings of fear or frustration fester,” advises Terry. “That will do more harm than good. Use the force which these feelings generate in a creative way."
Terry who was grateful to be able to remember a lot of the music he’d listened to prior to spending time in captivity, used the power of his imagination to hear that music and also to write chapters of a book.
“Good music has the capacity to breathe harmony into the soul,” says Terry. “And I was able to write in my head. I wrote my first book in my head during those years as I had no pencil or paper at all.”
During those five years in captivity, Terry may have lost his freedom but he refused to lose his dignity or his soul. He would even press his clothes under his thin mattress each night in order to retain his dignity.
“I used to say in the face of my captors, ‘you have the power to break my body and you’ve tried, the power to bend my mind and you’ve tried but my soul is not yours to possess’.”
Finding Hope After Loss
Currently, during this Corona virus crisis, we are collectively experiencing a sense of loss.
Loss of freedom, of income, of connection; loss of control over what we do, where we go, who we see; for some the heartbreaking loss of loved ones; for all the loss of certainty about the future.
Yet throughout human history, people have experienced great loss: of family members, of limbs, of liberty. But those who’ve lost have gone on to not only survive but to thrive. People who’ve lost so much have emerged the other side; they’ve recovered and risen to feel and become better than before their loss; often with a greater sense of appreciation for life.
Because, oddly, while loss takes away, it also gives back.
People who’ve experience PTG (Post Traumatic Growth) after extreme adversity talk about feeling a deeper sense of appreciation for what they have; for the life they nearly lost, and for the people in it.
I’m almost certain that, once we come out the other side of this shared adversity, we’ll have a renewed sense of appreciation for everything we once took for granted: the actual hugs, the family visits, the freedom to go where we please, our work, their education, our alone time and our social time. We'll likely resolve never again to take things, people or experiences for granted.
And while enduring loss is painful, we can emerge the other side by holding on to hope that things will get better. Just as Terry did.
And they do. They will.
- “Have hope,” smiles Terry. "Keep hope alive, because hope keeps your spirits up. Face the reality of life with acceptance and live life as fully as you can."
“I understand that people are exceptionally worried because their whole future is at stake, but, I know what that’s like myself,” adds Terry. “I had to face a very uncertain future; I was tortured. I had a mock execution. I never knew whether I’d see the end of the day or not, therefore I had to face real uncertainty just as many people today are having to face real uncertainty and the way to cope with that is to somehow learn to live for the day."
So Terry, who has seen many faces of solitude from his own experiences and whilst researching Solitude, his latest book on the subject, suggests that we:
- Make the most of now. “Remember that you have life now. Learn to live for the day, make that day as full as possible. Because this is your life now. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but now.”
- Avoid the news. “Get on with other things. There’s more to life than hearing 12 times a day how terrible this is. It is terrible. We know it’s terrible, we don’t need to be told 12 times a day it’s terrible.”
- Get perspective. “Shift your mindset because you’re not STUCK at home, you’re SAFE at home.”
- Become more self-aware. "Use the opportunity which solitude gives you to be more introspective than you’d normally be, because now you’ve got the time to get to know yourself better."
- Uncover your strengths. Says Terry, “I discovered I had gifts and abilities that I didn’t know I had and they were brought out in solitude. That can be exactly the same experience for people today; you can discover you have abilities you didn’t know you had.”
- Do what you’ve been meaning to and savour it. "Use the time to do what you’ve always said you wanted to do: pick up that book you’ve never got round to reading, listen to music. But instead of just listening to it as background music, really listen to it.”
- Count your blessings one by one. “I used to say to myself when I was in captivity: ‘Oh, if only I was surrounded by my books, it wouldn’t be so bad. Well now I consider myself today, here in self-isolation, to be extremely fortunate. I’m surrounded by my books; I can talk to people as I’m talking to you. I’m not cut off. And there are people around who will do my shopping. Being in the vulnerable category I’m not going out. So I’m extremely fortunate."
Terry said he hopes we’ll come out of this situation for the better.
“We’ll recognise that we do actually need each other,” says Terry. “We’ve got to stand together as human beings regardless of colour, creed or status. We belong together and need to support each other. We need community and we need each other. If this brings that out in us and a renewed sense of community and purpose, that’ll be good.
“Already I’m discovering that,” Terry admits. “People are being in touch with me who haven’t been in touch for years and I realise what wonderful friends one has neglected because one has been so busy.”
“I hope this can bring back to us the recognition that we need to be in communication with each other.”
And finally Terry pleads:
“Stick to isolation. It’s not only for your own protection. By staying at home you might think this time is wasted, but it isn’t wasted, it’s a positive act to protect other people to make sure that the great people in our NHS - of which my daughter is one and another daughter is a volunteer - make sure that they can get on with their job and do the good job that they’re doing.”
“By staying at home, don’t think this is negative. It isn’t. It’s a positive act.”
Thank you Terry Waite
We can do this ❤