Mention 'Terry Waite' to millennials and you tend to get a don't-care 'Who?' But I can remember a time when his name was on our lips round the clock for half a decade. I happened to catch him on Sky News at lunchtime, and my mind was cast back to 1987 when he was kidnapped in Beirut. As a hostage negotiator and an envoy for the Church of England, Waite had taken heart-thumping risks all over the world. He was accustomed to escaping by the skin of his teeth and running for his life. But then that happened.
I was a journalist on Fleet Street at the time. I remember all other news pausing while the implications were absorbed. This mild, selfless man had travelled to Lebanon to negotiate the release of four hostages, journalist John McCarthy among them. But he himself was taken and held ... for 1,763 days, the first four years in solitary confinement. He recalled today that he slept on the floor, was chained to a wall for twenty-three hours and fifty minutes of every day, and was unlocked only once in every twenty-four-hour period to visit the bathroom. Each time someone entered his cell, he had to wear a blindfold. He did not set eyes on another human face for four years.
His post-release books 'Taken on Trust' and 'Footfalls in Memory' were international bestsellers. Now, at eighty years of age, he is writing another. He reflected today on the coronavirus crisis, and about coming to terms with anger and extreme feelings. The way to do that, he pointed out, is just to live for the moment. To make it as full as possible. To adjust mentally. To say to yourself, 'There is little or nothing that I can do to change this. But I'm going to live now.' He was without books, newspapers or writing implements. He had nothing to distract himself. Instead, he wrote 'in his head.'
'Things do have a habit of working out well for the majority,' he commented. So we have to re-frame the way we think. We are not 'stuck at home,' we are 'safe at home.' We just have to try and keep ourselves alive. It's what he told himself each time he was being tortured.
How hard can this be, compared? His advice is to maintain our personal dignity. Keep washed and dressed and smart. We should still take pride in our appearance behind closed doors - for our own sake. Forming a structure to the day is vital. The Revd. Canon Dr. Alison Joyce’s Sermon last Sunday at St. Bride's Church – 'the Journalists' Church' on London’s Fleet Street, where a vigil was held for Terry and John McCarthy throughout their captivity – majored eloquently on this. There are of course no 'live' services at this or any other place of worship for the forseeable. But they continue, and can be accessed via the website: www.stbrides.com (top right-hand corner, 'Listen Live').
We have books, the internet and virtual access to the world, Terry reminds us. We should use this time on hold creatively; ask ourselves, 'what is there in this situation that we can take and use?'
Our world will be, when we emerge, a very different place. An unrecognisable place. We have, he says, all been 'levelled.' We've been reminded that we are all human. All vulnerable. We will value aspects of our way of life that we had begun to dismiss and disregard.
'If we can take that on board,' he concluded, 'we'll all be better for it.'