Sometimes life doesn’t go quite as planned.
-Photo by Christy Pennington
-Photo by Christy Pennington
Terry Waite knows that better than most people.
A noted hostage negotiator and British humanitarian, Waite never planned to become a hostage himself on Jan. 20, 1987, when he went to negotiate the release of hostages held by the Islamic Jihad Organization. But on that day, Waite, acting as a special envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, was taken hostage, remaining in captivity for 1,763 days, the first four years of which were spent in total solitary confinement.
Waite, scholar-in-residence for Lipscomb’s Institute for Conflict Management, recounted his situation as an example of “when things go terribly wrong” as he was the featured speaker at a special retreat offered by the institute for a group of 35 graduate students, board members, supporters and friends Sept. 12-13 in Woodstock, Vt., a city recognized for best practices in sustainability and mediation.
In addition to gathering for a meal at a third-generation working farm and hiking the Quechee Gorge, the group had a unique opportunity to learn from one who experienced conflict first-hand.
The 6’7” Waite used lessons learned during his captivity and hostage negotiation expertise to help attendees see the value of managing conflict even in the most unexpected circumstances.
He said he felt fear and anger after he was captured—fear of the unknown and an anger at himself for the risk he had taken and with his captors for breaking trust. To deal with the anger, Waite said he tried to find a way to control it.
“You have to do something about the anger that you feel,” said Waite. “It has to go somewhere so that it doesn’t turn to bitterness and affect you negatively.”
He refused to eat for a week, only taking water, to exert some control. After a week, the force of the anger was gone, he said. Trying to live in the moment was another strategy he used to cope with his unexpected situation.
“I tried to structure my day, each day, the best I could,” said the 74-year-old Waite. “This helped me maintain a sense of balance. I also tried to recall as many stories and books that I read over my lifetime to fill my mind and to keep me thinking.”
At the beginning of his ordeal, Waite developed a three-pronged mantra that he said was an intentional decision for himself of “no regrets, no self-pity and no sentimentality.” He repeated it over and over while in captivity.
Waite said he doesn’t pity himself nor have any regrets for experiencing such an ordeal.
“There are people who have it worse then me,” he said. “And, ‘if onlys’ are useless. You can’t relive your life. Recognize that life is now … this moment. Now.”
Through the years of his captivity, Waite said the guards assigned to watch him were “reasonably kind,” and that he continued to view them as humans with wants and needs and interests, just like himself.
“This is one of the most important lessons that I want to emphasize,” said Waite. “I have seen so many young people, sucked into leadership of extreme movements for the sake of being a part of something and to have something to believe in. Then, they find they are unable to get out once they have bought into that philosophy. This is how terrorist groups function.”
Released from captivity on Nov. 18, 1991, Waite said that the weeks and months following his release were “difficult to bear” as he readjusted to life and he had a particular aversion to reading press reports due to “inaccuracies and misrepresentations.”
Through it all, Waite said he never lost faith. Each morning while in captivity, Waite had a small glass of water and he routinely kept a small piece of bread from dinner the night before. With these emblems, he had a communion service each morning.
He said that what one believes radically affects how a person reacts to certain situations.
“I could say to myself in the face of my captors, ‘You have the power to break my body. You have the power to bend my mind. But, my soul is not yours to possess,’” said Waite. “I knew that they could kill me, but they could not destroy me. I knew that God was bigger than any doctrine or dogma behind what this was about.”
Waite will be featured at a second conference at Lipscomb University in spring 2014, where he will share more of his experience and insight into the practice of conflict management.
Today, Waite is co-founder and president of Y Care International, the YMCA’s international development and relief agency, and also serves as president of Emmaus UK, a nonprofit organization serving formerly homeless people. He has authored numerous articles and papers as well as several books including “Taken on Trust,” “Footfalls in Memory” and “Travels with a Primate.”