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Thoughts on Isolation from Terry Waite

by Kimberly Inlander

Apr 23, 2020

Photo: Vladans | Dreamstime.com

Travel Tips

Terry Waite was working for the release of hostages when he was taken captive in Beirut more than 30 years ago. He spent 1,763 days chained to the wall and, for the majority, he was totally alone. Waite was our guest of honor at our first, 10th and 15th GT Tested Reader Survey awards, where his words, his life experience and his thoughts moved and inspired our guests. As we continue to face unprecedented circumstances in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are sharing an article Waite recently wrote for Daily Telegraph. His books Out of the Silence and Solitude are available and can offer further assistance during this difficult time.


“For some people the prospect of spending the coming few weeks in isolation is frightening. We are all social animals and are accustomed to being with other people. Now, because of the lockdown, it seems that the only contact some will have with others will be through the internet, or telephone, and perhaps the occasional face-to-face conversation at a distance of two meters.


Only a very few will be totally cut off from all contact with others. Now we all face a situation that has changed radically in the past few weeks.


Over 30 years ago, when I was active in working for the release of hostages, I was taken captive in Beirut. No one can do that sort of work without facing the recognition that one day things might go wrong. Eventually they went wrong for me and I found myself in a tiled cell deep underground. I spent the next 1,763 days chained to the wall and, apart from the last few weeks, I was totally alone.


For the first weeks I was kept underground. Afterwards I was moved to a bombed-out building. I slept on a thin mattress on the ground. I had one visit to the bathroom a day and that only lasted for a few minutes. Metal shutters were placed across the windows so no natural light entered the room. I had no books or papers for years and no contact whatsoever with the outside world. When a guard came into the room to bring me a meager meal, I had to pull a blindfold over my eyes so I never saw another human being for years.


Mercifully, lockdown will be nothing as severe as that extreme experience but there are some things that I learned then which may be of some help to those who are finding the situation today difficult to bear.


When the cell door closed behind me in the tiled cell, I was frightened. Today many are frightened at what is a totally new experience. I realized quickly that I had to keep hope alive and that was not easy, living as I was under such strict conditions. Today, without a doubt, this virus will eventually be defeated and, providing we all keep to the guidelines that have been suggested, the vast majority of us will be safe. When I sat on the floor in the dark and dismal cell, I remember saying to myself, “No self-pity and no over sentimentality.” I remembered there were thousands who were in a far worse situation than I was. I still had my life and I was determined to do my best to survive. As for over sentimentality, by that I meant I was not going to look back and be full of regrets about things I had done which I ought not to have done, as the C of E old prayer book puts it.


Along with this I had to learn to live one day at a time; to realize that I still had life and should live it as fully as possible. I longed for books but they were not supplied for years and so I began to develop my mental capacity and write in my head. My first book, Taken on Trust, was written largely in this way and only put down on paper years later. In isolation it is easy to become over introspective and depressed. All of us, when we are honest and examine ourselves critically, will discover things about ourselves of which we are not especially proud. I had to learn how to grow into a greater acceptance of myself and work toward a deeper inner harmony. There was plenty of time to work on that!

Terry Waite, 2012. Photo: Featureflash | Dreamstime.com


I also knew that it was important to maintain my own personal pride. Although there were many times when I was kicked around and tortured I was determined not to lose what little dignity I could muster. My guards thought I was totally mad when, in the first days of captivity when I still had my own clothes, I removed my trousers at night and placed them under the mattress on the floor to press them. Today, in lockdown, it’s important to keep yourself well. Don’t slop around all day in pajamas and a dressing gown. Dress properly and develop a routine for the day. It’s important to have a structure — get up at a certain time; eat regular meals; and so on.


In those far-off days I wished I could be surrounded by books and music of my choice. Well, today, in lockdown, I have them and, what is more, have the time to enjoy them. There was little exercise I could do fastened to the wall as I was but I managed. It’s important not just to sit around all day. A walk is still possible.  For many, the exercise bike that has been in store for years could be brought back into service.  Place a tablet computer on the handlebars, find a cycle route and off you go through Italy or wherever. In other words, be innovative and keep imagination alive.


I’ve never believed that if one has religious belief then that means one will have special protection for the ills that afflict all humankind. If you have faith, then that will give you resources to draw on. As a chorister in my youth, unconsciously I learned many of the hymns, psalms and prayers by heart. In captivity they were there to draw on.


Take this time of restriction as an opportunity. An opportunity that may never come again in your lifetime. Now you can do many of the things you have been promising yourself to do for years. Looking back, I certainly would not want to pass through the experience of captivity again. It was hard. However, in a strange sort of way, I can be grateful for it. Although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, I was growing up inwardly. I was developing gifts I never knew I had. This world is full of suffering and we don’t have to look for it. It will find us all in one way or another. When it does, remember that in most cases suffering need not destroy. It is possible for something unexpected and creative to emerge from it.


In the final days of captivity I fell seriously ill with a bronchial infection. I was given no medication, but my captors decided to move me out of solitary and put me in with three other hostages. I could not lie down and so sat, day and night, with my back resting against the wall. At night, when I was fighting to get my breath, the American journalist Terry Anderson stretched as far as his chains would allow and simply placed his hand over mine. Just to know that he cared brought me tremendous comfort.


A crisis such as the one we are all experiencing brings out the best and the worst in people. Fortunately, the best far outweighs the worst as we have seen in the large numbers of people who have volunteered to help the vulnerable. Remember, there are hands stretching out to support you. Most people do care.”


Terry Waite, CBE


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