The benefits of the sound of silence

Terry Waite’s new book explores the benefits of solitude

By Colin Blakely

Terry Waite endured the hardest type of solitude during the five years he was held in captivity in Lebanon. In his new book he recounts his conversations with people who have also encountered solitude, either willingly or otherwise, to find out more about the power of solitude.

Although he is known the world over from his time as a captive, he told me that his first experience with solitude came when he was just three years old.

“I got scarlet fever and I was put in hospital. My parents came to see me but in those days scarlet fever was a highly dangerous disease to get — and highly contagious — and I remember them being outside a window, they weren’t allowed to come to me.

“I couldn’t understand why I had to be separated that way. Why they couldn’t come and embrace me. It frightened me and looking back on it now, almost 80 years later, I still remember that experience of being separated later on.”

He admits that he has always found solitude ‘something quite difficult to embrace’.

“People used to say to me in later life one should take time to go away and be quiet, and I did so. I couldn’t always achieve it because of so many activities buzzing around in my head.

“It was in captivity that I was forced to face it that I then learned that it’s a hard road and eventually — although at the time it doesn’t seem as though you’re gaining anything from it — eventually you find you are gaining a great deal.”

And the people he writes in the book about have all gained something from solitude. Unusually, perhaps, none of the people he writes about have chosen solitude for religious reasons. He said that enough books have been written about the religious aspect.

“I thought to myself, let me go and try and explore the subject with people who experience solitude for a different variety of reasons.

His book begins with a visit to a remote outpost in the Outback of Australia. One of those he met lived 400 miles from the nearest civilization. “But she found that solitude for her — she was the wife of a rancher out there — was something that she embraced and found totally fulfilling.”

He came to the conclusion that people don’t have be naturally solitary to appreciate its benefits. “The fact of the matter is that we can all do with these periods in our life to enable us to be rounded people. There are some people in the book who will go to the edge, but there are others who manage to fit it into a normal life.

“However, there are people in the book who find it to be oppressive and destroying.”

One example is a man he met in Chicago.

“Here was this huge city teeming with people. But I visited someone in an apartment in Chicago who was deeply alone, deeply isolated, although he was surrounded by thousands of people.

“In that situation he was on the brink of suicide because you can be amongst people and still be deeply alone. He had not been able to come to terms with himself for one reason or another — maybe many good reasons — and enable him to convert loneliness into creative solitude and that’s a big problem today.”

To illustrate that he mentioned an article he had read in that morning’s newspaper where children as young as four are being taught how to combat depression.

“Can you believe this? What is taking place in our society?

“We’re losing a sense of community. And with the attachment to modern devices we think we have the relationship, but it’s an electronic media relationship, which is not any in-depth relationship such as you can have with an interpersonal encounter.”

Some of those in the book have had solitude thrust upon them.

“Years ago Svetlana Stalin, the daughter of Stalin, came to stay with us in London. When she came tothis country we helped her get settled.

“One Christmas she said to me that she would love to go to church. I said that we would take her to the Orthodox Church in Princess Gate. She thought about it and she said she couldn’t go. ‘Everybody in that church — or the majority of them — will have been exiled by my father and will know me. I just can’t face it now.

“She had a solitude forced upon her by circumstances by her family and that does happen. Some people are put into that situation through no fault of their own and just can’t break out of it for one reason or another.”

Another example he cites is Myra Hindley, the Moors murderer. He visited her in prison right up until her death.

“She committed the most horrific crimes, no doubt about it. Personally, I believe she fell under the influence of Brady who was a psychopath.

“Here was an impressionable young girl who committed the most terrible crimes. But later on she was, I believe, really genuinely repentant of those crimes and she received tremendous spiritual support from the prison chaplaincy who were very supportive to her over those years.

“It is a very good example of how a good prison chaplaincy can really do wonders for people, but there was no chance of her being released and she was in segregation throughout all her prison experience. Segregation is not total solitude but it’s separation nevertheless.”

There is a very different kind of solitude recounted in the book about a double agent.

“People might be surprised to find that I went to see George Blake in Moscow. He was living in a KGB apartment there and I went to see him to discuss this very question and discuss his solitude.

“He kept this part of his life, when he was working for the Soviets and working for the British, totally from his wife. She had not the faintest idea that he was engaged in this duplicitous work and she was deeply shocked, obviously, when it was discovered.

“His was another example of a very, very different form of solitude.”

And he writes about his own experiences.

“In those years of captivity I was obviously being separated and cut off from everybody else. There was no human contact with anyone. If someone came into the room I had to wear a blindfold so I didn’t see anybody for almost five years.

“I experienced the most loneliness there but somehow what I had to do to combat that was to almost, in a sense, make friends with myself,learn to converse with myself, learn to use and discipline my imagination by writing in my head.”

And indeed his book recounting those experiences, Taken on Trust, was composed solely in his head. “I realized that I might never have a communication with anyone ever again, but I needn’t be essentially alone.”

He said this was a way to creatively use solitude. A lesson that others can use.

“I think trauma is there — it doesn’t need to destroy you and that’s the point about it. I think life need not destroy you — it can — and we could destroy each other but it isn’t a given.”

And that was when a way of dealing with trauma was revealed to him in a new light recently.

“I saw it particularly in my sister, whose husband died and they were very close — probably the closest couples I’ve ever known. He died and following his death she actually eventually discovered a whole new life.

“She discovered that she could actually be a speaker. She probably had never dreamt of doing that when she was married, because her life was caught up in another way. So even that can be a gateway to a new experience but the world will remain and that is true for all trauma.

However, with increasing loneliness in modern society, he has a message for the Church.

“I think the church is in a unique position to actually do something about that. In every part of our land there is a parish church and there are still people in those churches who can go out and go beyond that to build contacts with the lonely.

“I live in a small village in Suffolk where there are quite a number of people who live alone, perhaps widowed or what-have-you. Just by simply doing something very practical, providing a car to help with shopping, it can bring people together.”

And he believes that our worship could benefit from more silence. Too many services can be ‘a bit like a circus,’ he observes.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been particularly good in the Anglican Church of incorporating silence in worship. In the old days — particularly in the early communion service — before the service there would be quiet. People wouldn’t be talking like they do today.

“Silence is not something that’s really accommodated fully within Anglican worship, which is one of the reasons why I’m an Anglican and also a member of the Society of Friends, the Quakers.

In that form of worship you would sit together in a circle around a small table in the centre and be silent. Some people would speak if they felt they had something to say but sometimes nobody speaks and that can be remarkably refreshing and remarkably creative.

“I would not wish to give up at all the Anglican liturgy and the Anglican way of worship but I wish to have it balanced by what I experienced with the Quakers’ style of worship.”

Over his lifetime Terry Waite has found that he has been able to speak with people from different traditions and religions and discovered that the benefits of solitude and silence are not exclusive to Christianity.

“For instance, a friend of mine who is a rabbi sent me a book of reflections and he asked for my comments on it.

He had written reflections on 54 readings from the Torah and I gave him my response. But I also suggested that he should get the publisher to get a Christian author and an Islamic author to do 54 reflections from their perspectives.

“I will guarantee that if you do them in depth and draw the spiritual implications you’ll find a commonality.”

SOLITUDE by Terry Waite is published by SPCK