The sound of silence

by
13 October 2017

At the end of National Prisons Week, Terry Waite reflects on the challenges posed by enforced solitude, and the possibilites of silence

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The road less travelled: desert road, Namibia

The road less travelled: desert road, Namibia

THE solitude of the earth relates to the solitude within. The remote regions of this world have a harmony of their own. We need to be able to relate to that solitude. A part of the secret of inner harmony is to face solitude squarely and enter into the harmony that is a part of the music of creation.

In the classic work on solitude by Anthony Storr, Solitude, Storr refers to an experiment when volunteers were confined to a darkened, soundproofed room and required to lie still for most of the time.

In the main, those who undertook the experiment suffered from reduced intellectual performance, especially if they were required to engage in creative activity. Their ability to concentrate suffered, and in some cases they were plagued by constant obsessional thoughts over which they had little or no control. A number of volunteers surrendered almost completely to daydreaming.

One of the most interesting results of these experiments was that some volunteers became eight times more susceptible to propaganda compared with subjects tested under normal conditions. Hallucination and panic attacks, along with irrational fears, were observed, and one volunteer demanded early release, as his mind became full of unpleasant childhood memories that drove him to distraction.

I have seen this experience repeated many times in civilian prisons in the UK. One particular instance comes to mind of a young woman I met in a British jail. Her arms were deeply scarred as a result of multiple attempts at self-harm. She was kept alone in a cell for long periods, during which time she relived, in her mind, childhood experiences when she was constantly abused. The pain she inflicted on herself by cutting her arms was her way of blotting out such memories from her consciousness.

As for my own experience of solitary confinement, when I was totally alone for month after month, I remember being plagued by unpleasant and disturbing memories from my past. At times, they almost drove me to distraction, and it took a considerable act of will to try and find some inner balance. I had to learn to discipline my imagination, and this I did, in part, by writing in my head. This was the only means open to me, as I was without pencil and paper throughout captivity.

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I also had to recognise that, in company with all human beings, I was a complex mixture of “light and dark”, and I needed to be realistic about my nature and not be over-depressed when the dark side loomed. Solitude is by no means an open door to creativity or to peace. It can be very hard work. I have the deepest sympathy for those who suffer from depression. It is an awful condition.

In the final chapter of his book, Storr mentions the dialogue recorded between Koestler and Anthony Grey. Grey was imprisoned in China, where he experienced solitary confinement, and Koestler was in solitary imprisonment in Spain. Both Grey and Koestler said that they were grateful not to have had to share a cell with others. Grey remarked: “I felt I had only myself to deal with. I felt that I could deal with myself but I couldn’t necessarily control someone else.”

Koestler responded by saying that oneself is already a handful, implying that that was quite enough for him to deal with. Both felt that their experience deepened their sympathy and understanding of other human beings.

They both indicated that solitary confinement was for them a kind of mystical experience. “You have a feeling of inner freedom. Of being alone and confronted with inner realities . . . So you have got a dialogue with life, a dialogue with death,” Koestler wrote.

That statement, I believe, begins to touch the essence of the experience. In prolonged solitude, there is the possibility of facing realities that are indeed difficult to express verbally. It is as though we confront, within ourselves, the mighty forces that shape the universe, and in the face of such forces we are rendered silent. We are both repelled and attracted at the same moment: attracted by the mystery of the experience, and repelled by the power that, we realise, has the capacity to swallow us, as a black hole might swallow light.

 

IT WAS in the face of such an experience that symbols took on a great significance for me. Koestler comments: “Whether it is the cross or the crescent moon or the shield of David, they are symbols, man-made symbols for a reality that cannot be formulated.”

I made a simple cross from toilet paper, and each day I saved a small piece of bread so that I could begin the day by celebrating holy communion. I intuitively realised that both the symbols and the symbolic action would somehow relate me to an experience that was too deep for me to verbalise.

Now that I am some years away from the experience of complete solitude, I have become increasingly frustrated with the verbosity present within certain religious services. I am increasingly attracted by the silence of the Quakers and the symbolic expressions of the Orthodox, which provide a background for the intensity of a solitary encounter. In many churches today, it is virtually impossible for an individual to be solitary within the context of community worship.

During solitary confinement, I became increasingly aware of my own mortality, not only because I was actually facing severe threats due to the uncertain temperament of my captors, and was at times kept in locations that were under shellfire, but because of the nature of the experience itself. I was driven to a level of introspection that was both frightening and rewarding.

 

EXPERIENCING years of solitary life is, as already indicated, difficult to explain. I have compared it to crossing a vast desert. For day after day, you plod onwards with your eyes fixed on the horizon, looking for an end to the ordeal. As the days, months, years pass by, time takes on a new meaning. Instead of always looking to the far distance, you begin to look around and discover that, far from being a bleak and arid place, the desert is teeming with life.

The journey is indeed exhausting, but gradually you learn to live for the moment. You begin to mark the route with symbolic expressions that extend beyond the limitations of time: a paper cross, symbolic language. The world you thought was beyond the horizon is also within you and all around. Death now no longer lies over the horizon.

Now, Thanatos (the Greek personification of death) has become a companion who walks alongside without threat. Within the relationship you have with him is an inexpressible sadness that comes from the knowledge that death is certainly the one encounter in life which we must face alone. Death, whom we have tried to keep at a distance and ignore, has always been at our side. Now we have eyes to see him, and the conversation with him is what we make it. We can remain fixed on the horizon and attempt to escape the reality of the moment, or we can enter into a relationship that opens up new dimensions for us in life.

Rather than be depressed by the reality of human existence, we can be stimulated by the relationship that opens up the possibility of being invigorated by the experience.

 

This is an edited extract from Solitude by Terry Waite © Terry Waite 2017 (SPCK, £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.30)), reproduced by kind permission of SPCK, www.spck.org.uk).

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