Terry Waite was held hostage for 5 years in Lebanon in the late 1980s, after having gone there as the Church of England’s envoy to negotiate the release of existing prisoners.
He spent four years in a tiny windowless cell, chained to a wall. He suffered countless beatings and mock executions. He explains how he had to put on a blindfold if a guard came into the cell, so he didn’t see a human face for four years. They refused him a pen and paper, and books and any communication with the outside world including his family.
He reflects back on it all and says, ‘Yes, it was a bit isolating.’
Terry Waite is the human manifestation of what it means to be humble, to serve and to sacrifice. He put himself in harm’s way in the hope that he could help others.
The craziest thing is that he claims he was mainly doing it for himself. He insists his career has been about achieving reconciliations and that following that path has helped him reconcile the different sides of his own self.
He is also quick to point out that many people have to endure far more than he did. He talks of people held captive in their own body, when disease or accident have taken away their ability to move.
Both Terry’s words and actions advocate the profound importance of having empathy: it is a fundamental tenet of his approach to life. His empathy helped him stick to the three rules he set himself when he realised that he’d been taken hostage: no regrets, no self pity and no sentimentality. He also stuck to his principle of non violence, a philosophy tested to the extreme when one day he found a gun in the toilet left accidentally by his guard. Terry said ‘I think you’ve forgotten something’ and handed back to the guard.
So how does one cope with four years of entirely unjust and unrelenting solitary confinement?
‘I did my best to structure each day. I would allocate a period of time to doing my exercises, then I would write for an hour or two in my head, then do mental arithmetic. And I spent a lot of time dreaming up poetry too. And then it would be time for some more exercises. And so on.’
He claims there have been many unintended benefits of the ordeal. It gave him the confidence to lead his salaried job afterwards and live a freer life. So one related piece of wisdom he is keen to pass on is that every disaster, or seeming disaster, in life can usually be turned around and something creative can emerge from it.
‘Its the same lessons I learnt in that cell. What you have to do is live for the day, you have to say, now is life, this very moment. Its not tomorrow, its not yesterday, its now, so you have to live it as fully as you can. Invest in every day.’