Ahead of John McCarthy’s keynote speech on personal resilience at the Good Day At Work Conversation 2015, Good Day At Work Content Editor, Tori Wastnedge, gave him a call to find out more about the sources of that resilience in his darkest moments. 


“You’ll have to forgive the noise,” John said when he answered the phone, “We’ve got the builders in so there’s scaffolding everywhere.”


Since being taken hostage back in April 1986 for 1,943 days by Islamic Jihad in Lebanon, John McCarthy has readjusted to life at home very well. He lives with his wife Anna, and their daughter Lydia, working as a writer and presenter at their home in London. Today, John faces many of the same trials as the rest of us – meeting deadlines at work, honouring family commitments and having to deal with the chaos of redecorating.


But for five and a half years, John and his fellow captives came face-to-face with the very limits of their abilities to cope in the face of intense pressure, and very real danger. During that time, John lived with the constant threat of execution. He was often chained in dark, cramped rooms, with no knowledge of where he was and no contact with the outside world. He would face beatings from his younger captors and had no idea if or when he would ever be released.


“It was pretty heavy stuff,” John recalled. “Looking back, it’s surprising that I was able to cope. And it wasn’t really until afterwards that I started to think, ‘God, so, how did we manage?'”


It quickly became apparent that John sees himself as an unlikely hero. Having grown up in a close-knit family unit in Hertfordshire, John had always had a comfortable life. Yet when he was faced with what he described as the most “ghastly” situation, he discovered he was able to draw on this remarkable resilience he never knew he had.


“I was just an ordinary bloke,” he explained. “I was quite a nervous young man with no great ambition, necessarily. But I was fortunate because I knew who I was. I knew I was loved by my family. I suppose it was this sense of identity that gave me this solid core of inner strength within me, to help me cope. I think that’s what got me through. That, and my naturally optimistic disposition.


Boredom, fear and conversation


Perhaps most striking when speaking with John about his experiences as a captive in Beirut, is his unwavering optimism when remembering that time in his life. He used the word “fortunate” on many occasions, especially when describing his relationships with his fellow hostages.


“It really wasn’t always this terrible experience,” he said. “Of course,” he added, “the context of it was always ghastly, but there was also a lot of fun and friendship and funny moments. The group I was with were very fortunate in that we all got on well and there were no real fallings-out. 


Reflecting on his awareness of the sources of his resilience at the time, John said, “I think that I spent those five years just coping.” Though he also readily acknowledged his reliance on the support of those around him, adding “One was at least subliminally conscious of supporting – and being supported – by one’s fellow captives.” 


A lot of the time, he explained, they were just horrendously bored. “There was an awareness, I think, that we were coping through humour and by talking about our past lives – just by trying to keep each other company.” 


In particular, John recalls his close friendship with Brian Keenan, the Irish writer who was captured at the same time as John, but released one year earlier. “God knows why,” he said, “but the older guys – Americans – seemed to have this innate need to win arguments. They’d bet a hundred dollars that so-and-so was right. Brian and I didn’t do that. We debated more just to get things right – and he got things right a lot more often than I did! 


The relationships that John and his comrades established during their years together as hostages, was by no means to be expected. John laughed as he recalled, “There was one bloke in another group who complained of one of his cell-mates to his captors, ‘You’re either going to have to place me in solitary confinement or shoot me, because I can’t deal with him anymore!'”


As well as his naturally optimistic personality, John drew much of his resilience and capacity to cope from this strong network of social support. These conversations and relationships helped keep away the boredom and fear that might otherwise have threatened to consume them.


Coming home


On 8 August 1991, John was released by his captors in Beirut. He returned home to a media frenzy. “I was suddenly very, very famous,” he remarked. “I had this respect, almost hero status conferred upon me. And it affected my life enormously.” 


So how does a person, who has found themselves in a life-and-death situation every day for the last five and a half years, return to living a normal life? John would have to draw on his resilience a second time to settle back into life as a free man. 


For a start, John would no longer be working as a journalist behind the camera in the newsroom. Now, he was the one giving the interviews and presenting the shows. “The experience didn’t define me in a negative way,” he said. “Although it affected my professional life enormously – and now I was always introduced as ‘former-hostage’ or ‘Beirut captive’.” 


John had to readjust to life with responsibilities and decisions. It wasn’t always easy. “I think I sometimes had a tendency to try to deal with things in hostage-mode. I‘d hide away from problems and it wasn’t until a couple of years later, when my dad was dying from cancer, that I recognised this and thought, ‘I can’t deal with this like that. This is something normal, that normal people go through.'”


Nevertheless, John’s sense of inner-strength and resilience has stayed with him to this day. Those lessons and experiences have not only shaped his career as an author, presenter and media personality, but continue to be a source of resilience for him. 


Over time, he may have become better at expressing what really happened, and doesn’t rule out the possibility of having misremembered an incident or two, but, “Generally-speaking, over the years I’ve been able to look back and say, ‘That’s how we survived. That’s how we dealt with the situation. That’s how it was’.” 


You can hear John tell his story of the power of resilience, at the Good Day At Work Conversation 2015 on 3 November. Book your tickets today.