Some people dream of visiting the Seven Wonders of the World. For me wonders come in all shapes and sizes…. And more importantly as well as places or things, they come in the form of some inspirational people. If the Seven Wonders of the World were people I think I had the pleasure of meeting one of them this week.
Aberdeen University’s brilliantly supported and created #BeingHuman Festival as part of the first Festival of Social Humanities (www.abdn.ac.uk/beinghuman) brought 77 year old Terry Waite OBE north to the Granite City. It was an event skilfully facilitated by Professor Anne Glover in which the audience were given a deep and meaningful insight. The title of the session “Survival in Solitude” being in my diary must have perplexed my colleagues as to how I viewed my team working (thankfully I work with a brilliant team of people and would not need to go on such a course….. if indeed one existed!).
Waite spoke for around an hour and I had the pleasure of spending a short amount of time with him afterwards. Although, in this short amount of time I felt as though I knew the man well and certainly came away feeling as though he knew something of me and really cared. The true sign of a good leader is how they make you feel when they walk away.
Waite’s story is well known as a church envoy and negotiator trying to free four hostages in the Lebanon in the late 1980s. It was a situation that turn for the worst with his capture. It was to last for a number of years with over four of them in solitary confinement.
Waite talked much about surviving that experience and many quotes sparked imagination when he spoke. However one which he mentioned early on struck a chord and a chain of thought throughout his presentation and after. “Good language has the capacity to breathe harmony into the soul.” For me his speech and his message was s one of cooperation and, more importantly communication, in the face of conflict, and now increasingly, complexity in our fast changing world. Whilst the purpose of the lecture was not around books- his reflection on books was very apt around Scottish Book Week.
Waite reflected on his re-reading of poetry and the Book of Common Prayer in his head as a means of survival. He was, and is not, a clergyman but a layman. His faith endured and both the word of God and words in general came through as constant supports when in solitude. He told of him writing his autobiography in his head during his time in captivity. He only had pencil and paper but two times and made do with forming up the ideas, the structure and the content in his head- all the time storing it for his eventual release from captivity.
His enduring faith in humanity and solid adherence to communication and cooperation were consistently clear throughout discussions. One episode helped to highlight this beautifully. His guards released him from the shackle of his chains during a time when he was very much so unwell. He was allowed to go to the toilet. On arriving in the cubical he found an automatic weapon on top of the toilet. Naturally thoughts started to rush through his head. Interestingly, when I mentioned this to others they immediately spoke about the thought of taking ones of life. This was at no point even mentioned by Waite on the night. The only thought was the initial rush as to whether he could use this as an opportunity for escape. However, just as quick as that thought came into his mind, it was replaced by the thought as to why he was there in the first place. He had arrived in the country to negotiate the release of prisoners though peaceful means. As such, he could not and would not, use this as an opportunity to shoot his way out of captivity. On leaving the toilet he informed the guard of their careless leaving of the weapon in the cubical and was returned to chains against the radiator in the room where he was held. A marvellous example of real life application of the morals and values by which one leads their life in the face of potential diversion. A wonderful comment was that of the unintended consequences that can come from what seem logical and clear actions. “Release a dictator by force and you release forces you cannot control.” Sometimes we need to let natural law take its course.
Whilst Waite kept communication top of his mind with thoughts of poetry and song he also pleaded for books from his captors. There was a perverse irony when one of the first books he got given was “Great Escapes”. Another, “A Manual of Breastfeeding” was perhaps of less potential value. The guard himself clearly was unable to read. As he read through the small number of books he had the guard insisted “read slower, read slower.”
On the second occasion of being given paper and pencil (the first was during a sick mock execution early in his capture) Waite used it to draw a picture of a penguin. This drawing was perhaps as misplaced as the Breastfeeding Guide, however it was his symbol and communication to the guard. Despite his illiteracy the guard now knew what symbol to look for when sourcing books and was able to bring Waite the sort of literature he yearned for. Mills and Boon were endured and Westerns were acceptable, albeit he did not really get into them!
Just as the written word and spoken word served to help his survival, so too did song. When guards asked him to sing Waite regaled them with “God Save our Gracious Queen” and the hymn “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past.” During the last week of his captivity a $10 radio was placed in his room. He managed to connect with the BBC World Service and listened to the Last Night of the Proms. His thanks for the World Service and enormous debt of gratitude is one we should reflect on where good, free, open and helpful communication are valuable in a world where communication is often misused and as a result its freedom placed in jeopardy.
Whilst music and words played its part, so too did more discrete and evasive communication. Tapping his name constantly on the wall in a basic code (1=A, 2=B, 3=C, 4=D and so on) he was taken aback, although not altogether surprised, when messages starting coming back through the wall. He had always suspected another prisoner was kept in the area and John McCarthy, held in the room next door and they updated on news such as the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Waite received little other communication from the outside world. However did receive one card from a lady back home. On his release he asked the lady how she managed to get the card to him. An envelope addressed TERRY WAITE, C/O HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON seemed to do the trick! Ironic given Hezbollah still deny capturing Waite! Waite was to later return to meet his captors twenty years later. That in itself was a story worth listening too.
However his release and return to normal life took time to sink in. “It was like coming up from the seabed” Waite explained, “like a deep sea diver, you need to take it easy”. A Cambridge fellowship ensured and this allowed him time to think and not rush back into anything. His later work with Hostage UK has helped many families who have went through the agony of losing loved ones and not knowing if they are going to come home or even if they are alive.
I asked Terry “how do we ensure communication and cooperation is at the heart of our workings in a world of conflict and chaos.” His focus was on trust. “Political settlement cannot happen unless there is some degree of trust on the ground” he affirmed. And his response was by no means idealistic. When focussing on the current state of affairs we discussed the brutality of the forces currently at humanities’ pearl. Regrettably, for the protection of people in the region, there will need to be some force used. We are living with a situation that is no longer a local problem but a global one. Force after all sends out its own communication. Whilst it needs better global cooperation that might be around this common theme to start with. Early signs of that emerged with historic images in the past week of President Obama and President Putin sat huddled together over a coffee table. The time spent together and the open communication was as progressive and it was overwhelming to witness.
It is perhaps sad to reflect that their unity and common identity is against “the other”. I would also reflect that outpouring of support for the French flag over the past week- facebook pages changed, world heritage sites and major buildings lit up and flags waved- can only really unite people in adversity. It is a well known phenomenon that it is easier to identify with what you are against than positively affirm what you are for. How sad it is that it is only when there is a common enemy that we can declare what was stand for and unite. When will the world unite for humanitarian purposes- education, clear water, food and shelter? Maybe even peaceful coexistence. This message is exactly the same for those undertaking the attacks. It is a message for all those who find it easier to continue to cycle of violence than grapple with the more challenging issue of peace. How do we end the alienation that leads to extremism and radicalisation?
To conclude, my time with Mr Waite was a once in a lifetime experience and an educational experience in humanity. His real interest in the charity work of my Neil’s No-member Charity Challenge was delightful although his feeling that I should keep my beard was less warmly welcomed by my wife nor my mother! Alas, he cannot get it all right. After all, he is only #BeingHuman
Neil’s November Charity Challenge is ongoing with four charities benefiting from a month with No Shaving, No Facebooking (except weekly updates on beard growth), no drinking and a conscientious effort not to moan)
Donations are gratefully received for the following charities. Please “breathe harmony into the soul” by communicating through your own good donations:-
Poppy Scotland (supporting Veterans and their families):- https://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan2/
The Compassionate Friends (supporting families who suffer child bereavement) https://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan1/
Friends of ANCHOR (Supporting Cancer Care and Research) https://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan3/
Samaritans (supporting whoever needs it at any time!) https://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan4/