Coutts in Conversation - Mental Health Awareness Week
Humanitarian Terry Waite CBE and educator Sir Anthony Seldon talked about remaining resilient in isolation at the latest Coutts online event
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Becoming creative during periods of isolation can help us all develop “a rich and full inner life”, Coutts clients heard at our latest online event connecting them with key figures.
Humanitarian and author Terry Waite, who was held hostage in Lebanon from 1987 to 1991, said creativity helped him develop “a greater degree of inner harmony” while in captivity.
The 80-year-old founder of Hostage International, who has helped free prisoners in Iran, Libya and Lebanon, told the audience he wrote books and listened to music in his head while in solitary confinement.
“When I sat down on the floor, chained to the wall in the first few hours of captivity, I was angry,” he said. “I was very angry with myself for taking a risk and I was certainly angry with my captors for breaking their word. Anger is a force which is present within all of us, we all get angry. And if we allow anger to possess us, it will do us more harm than it does those against whom it’s held.
“The secret is to try and take that force and turn it into a creative direction.”
Lockdown presents opportunities
While recognising that current lockdown conditions were very difficult for many people, Terry said it was a wonderful chance to take each day as “another opportunity for exploration and developing a rich, inner life”.
He then gave a good example: “I’ve always wanted to play a musical instrument but never got round to it. But I bought myself a ukulele and am learning to play it. Mercifully no-one has to listen to me! I just sit there and strum it.”
Think of five things you want to do
Sir Anthony, Vice-Chancellor of The University of Buckingham since 2015 and one of Britain’s leading historians and commentators, is something of a happiness expert.
He introduced happiness classes at independent school Wellington College in Berkshire 15 years ago, helped set up Action for Happiness – “a movement of people committed to building a happier and more caring society” – and is president of the International Positive Education Network.
Speaking at our online event – the latest in a series and held to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week – he agreed with Terry that current conditions created opportunity.
“Getting in touch with our own creativity is a sovereign path,” he said. “What a great time this is for all of us to try different things out in our own lives.”
He added that this approach should be taken into life after lockdown too.
“Write down five things that you’ve either loved to do, or that you’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “It might be dancing, it might be writing poetry, it might be going somewhere in the world. Whatever it is, make a note of it, and do it.”
Happiness builds resilience
Speaking more generally about the power of happiness, he told the audience, “Whatever misfortune might happen to us, and it’s a very difficult time for many people, there is a choice. There are always grounds for optimism, you can always do things. There are steps that we can take to improve the quality of our own lives.
“The more harmonious we can be with ourselves, with our colleagues, our family and friends, this will help to make us happier, and it builds resilience.
“If we can just pause and say, ‘no, I’m not going to let this get on top of me’, then we’re building. Resilience is like an up escalator – the more we take decisions in our own lives, recognising that we are the author of our own story, the more we take those courageous steps, the easier life will be.”
The event, championed by Coutts Chairman Lord Waldegrave, was chaired by Francesca Barnes, Non-Executive Director at Coutts.
Your questions answered
Terry and Sir Anthony answer a selection of questions that came in from our clients.
If you met your hostage takers again, how do you think you would feel? How would you stop yourself feeling hate or bitterness?
Terry: Well I have met my captors again – at least the organisation responsible for my capture. As I mentioned in the discussion this morning, I was given an invitation to see a hostage who was said to be on the point of death. I went and was captured. Years later I went back to the same location and met with one of the leaders of the group. I said that we had both moved on and I wanted to make something creative out of the experience of years ago.
He asked me what could be done and I said that I would like heating oil for the thousands of refugees whom I had seen flocking over the border into Beirut. He said they would see to it and I believe they did. Many things one might say about this. First, if you understand WHY people behave as they do you are well on the way to forgiving. Forgiveness does not mean that you agree with the wrong that has been done. It does mean you understand some of the factors, whatever they may be, as to why they did what they did.
Also, I would say that suffering in most cases need not destroy. Out of situations of suffering, it is possible for something creative to arise even though we do not see it at the time. I do not underestimate suffering. It is very hard but it can be turned around. Many great works of art or literature have emerged from situations of considerable suffering. I am not suggesting for one moment that we look for it – it will find us in one way or another. When it does it need not destroy.
I appreciate the need for creativity, but how do you get teenagers on board? Any suggestions welcome.
Terry: It is very many years since my children were teenagers and my grandchildren will soon be leaving this much maligned period of life!
Any comprehensive reply to this question would fill volumes but to make a start, teenagers share similar characteristics but they differ according to the environment. A teenager coming from a secure family background will, generally speaking, behave differently from one who comes from a highly disturbed situation. Most young people are curious. One needs to find ways of stimulating their imagination, especially in lockdown. If you are enthusiastic that will be as infectious as the virus!
Sir Anthony: Creativity always comes from within. Encourage young people to spend time on what they love doing.
How does one find happiness again following grief – when the things that are most important to you are no longer there?
Terry: This is not an easy question to answer as there is no simple answer. Grief is hard but necessary. We are put in touch with emotions that lie at the very heart of our being, and they disturb us greatly.
Once again we have to pass through this process calmly and slowly. Life will never be the same again and, step by step, we need to begin to build a new future for ourselves and those close to us. Life is always changing but grief pulls us up with a jerk and reminds us of our vulnerability, our loneliness and our uncertainty.
Grief can eventually draw out from us that which we may have used sparingly in the past or we did not know that we had – compassion for those who suffer and, perhaps more importantly, empathy. Sympathy is to feel sorry for someone. Empathy is to know what it is like to suffer and mourn.
In one of my books – Out of the Silence – I wrote the following:
Sears my soul,
Penetrates to the very depth
Of my being.
You have entered
A new realm.
You have joined
The community of compassion.
Your sorrow will be turned
Will become laughter,
Your wound will remain,
But now through suffering,
You have a new depth of soul
I would be so grateful to hear how Anthony Seldon feels about boarding schools and universities opening again. How do you feel about young people being isolated from each other for so long?
Sir Anthony: The important thing is not to catastrophise this for young people, who are far more resilient than we think. Nobody knows exactly when boarding schools and universities will reopen, and no one knows if there will be a second spike. The more positive we can all be in and around young people, the better. Think how much worse it would have been 20 years ago before social media.
Terry and Anthony have talked about living for now, being creative and doing other things to support our mental wellbeing. But until we have effective treatments or a vaccine, we are also going to have to accept a higher level of risk in our lives, and make our own risk assessments now that the simple “stay at home” instruction is behind us. How would they comment on managing the fear that so many people have about venturing back into the world?
Sir Anthony: There is always fear in life and there is always risk. We must cultivate courage and looking after others first, while ensuring that those most at risk remain at home.
Mental health seems to be a modern problem – do you agree?
Sir Anthony: While it is certainly true that mental illness can be contagious and, like fear, it can spread, it is also true that it is real. Not until the First World War did doctors wake up to shellshock and recognise that strain, depression and extreme fear are not signs of weakness.
We’re committed to supporting clients who may be affected by coronavirus and have robust plans in place to minimise any disruption to our service.
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