|Posted by Mark Cantrell on November 24, 2012 at 6:50 PM|
Don't be a hostage to despair
When Terry Waite was taken hostage in the 1980s so began an ordeal that would last almost five long years; how he learned to cope with the solitude and uncertainty of captivity is a lesson for life - certainly, it has something to teach writers facing the more sedate hardships of their craft, writes Mark Cantrell
SOME months ago, I found myself speaking to Terry Waite MBE about his work with the homelessness charity Emmaus; I wasn't expecting to come away from the interview with a few words of wisdom applicable to anyone looking to cope with the everyday angst of the literary life.
Inevitably, our conversation touched upon his time in captivity. The discussion isn't as strange as you might initially think. Waite sees in homelessness many parallels with his own experiences as a hostage; the same emotional and psychological hardships of isolation, uncertainty, deprivation, fear. Indeed, this resonance was one of the factors that drew him to work with the charity.
Waite's prominence on the national - let alone the international - scene is history now, but for those old enough to remember, back in the 1980s he was a frequent figure on British television news. He'd be shown jetting off to some trouble spot in the Middle East where, as the 'special envoy' for the Archbishop of Canterbury, he sought to negotiate the release of Western hostages.
"I never believed I was in any sense immune from captivity; I always believed it was a possibility," Waite said. "I went on many hostage missions and was successful on a number of occasions, but when I went I always took a clockwork watch because I always believed that if I was captured, the battery would run down and I would be without the time. Of course, best laid plans, when I was captured they took my watch away so I was no further forward."
That watch was finally taken from his wrist in January 1987. At the time, he was in Beirut, Lebanon, when he himself was taken hostage. Waite was to spend the next 1,763 days in captivity (roughly 4.8 years) - the first fours years of his captivity were spent in total solitary confinement. It wasn't until 19 November 1991 that he was finally released.
Few, if any, of us will ever experience the kind of extreme ordeal that Waite endured in the late 80s. The truth is, we are far more likely to experience homelessness. Forget the stereotypes of vagrants; it can happen to any one of us - but the way Waite learned to cope with his ordeal remains a lesson for life.
"When I was captured I had to learn how to develop my own strengths from within," said Waite. "I suppose all people are a mixture of introversion and extroversion, but in that situation one is forced to make an inner journey to know oneself more complete and fully. Anybody who does that finds, as they take that inner journey, they are a composite picture of light and darkness.
"The great thing is not to become over-burdened and swallowed by the darkness. [You must] try to find some sensible balance within, recognise that you are simply a normal, ordinary human being and subject to the dark sides of character as well as light sides. In other words, not to think too highly of yourself on the one hand, to have a modest estimation of yourself, but on the other, not to be too depressed when you discover that you are far from perfect.
"I suppose that sounds very trite when I say it, but it was actually something that did enable me to develop a greater sense of identity, a greater sense of self, which again you have to do when you're in adverse circumstances like that, because nobody is going to give you any positive feedback.
"You are going to be kicked around and you are going to be treated as a non-person and therefore you have to generate from within yourself the ability to be yourself. In other words, to stand up and to recognise that you are an individual, are a person, and are a person of worth."
Given the ordeal he endured, he's doubtless earned the right to talk such "trite". To be snatched from the world, held against his will, kept within utter isolation - nothing to read, to watch, unable to write, no one to talk to - and knowing that any day might end in brutal execution, is a horrifying prospect.
It's difficult to see how any of us might cope, let alone emerge so sanguine and rounded from such an experience, as he himself appears to have done.
Still, it's been a long time, and Waite himself is a writer - he's written about his experiences for one. Both time and words can be great healers. But for those of us locked away in the isolation of our garrets, struggling with the hardships and uncertainties of writing and publishing, Waite's "trite" words are worth contemplating.
"I think it does apply to everybody in all circumstances of life," Waite said. "Mine was an extreme and intense experience. I think it is from extreme situations that you can make understandings that are applicable to normal life and are applicable to every situation."
We will never - touch wood - find ourselves in such extreme circumstances as he did, but as we face the difficulties and uncertainties of the writers' life, we can surely learn from his attitude. The next time we feel like throwing our arms up in despair and throwing a hissy fit, perhaps we should remember Waite's words on how he coped with captivity.
Nothing's ever going to be that bad, right? So don't play hostage to fortune.
18 November 2012
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