A burnt and twisted steel window frame lifted from the wreckage of the North Tower of the World Trade Center now in the Imperial War Museum, London


Our lives only become a story when we can look back and define the beginning, the middle and most importantly the end of anything. Life itself, the everyday to and fro of our existence, is not being part of a story. We are not characters in our own narratives while we are living them; we exist in the now, always in the now, and can have no real sense of where it began and where it will all end. The uncertainty of life is perhaps why we, as humans, cling so avidly to stories. The idea that a narrative can have a beginning, a middle and an end is deeply reassuring, especially when we can find no such structure in our own lives.

There is fear and uncertainty when we are actually living through anything, but there can also be excitement as well as dread, joy as well as emptiness. However, when we can look back and manufacture the story from the fragments of memories and artefacts and photographs that seem to fill the gaps between those memories, we have a tale to tell of us. Our memories are fashioned in a series of overlapping stories, but our existence is not. Being is not living in a story. The act of being is not the playing of a role, but the living in a single moment that is changing often without our control from second to second. Even a cursory glance back through the last minutes of our life can allow us to construct a story. But that story ceases to exist, can’t exist, while we are living it. The story simply evaporates when it comes into contact with the now.

We talk of mindfulness and relishing the moment we are living in. This is an attempt to stave off the anxiety of worrying about the unknowns of the unfixed future or the consequences of a painfully fixed past. It is in this moment where we should live, and where we should place our efforts and find ourselves. But, we need to realise that this very moment is one that exists outside our story while we are living within it. As long as we are alive, the moment never passes as the twisted thread of time weaves through it and takes us along with it. The moment is always the same moment from the second of our awakening conscience till the dying of the light at the end of our lives. It is not a series of connected moments, but a single one. To live in that moment is not a choice but a necessity of consciousness. Mindfulness is not choosing to live in the moment—we have to do that as there is no alternative—but rather choosing to be aware of it.

On September 10, 2001 I arrived in New York in a thunderstorm. As I travelled in a taxi from Newark Airport I could see the looming towers of Manhattan against a wild sky. In a moment of almost biblical drama, a fork of lightening struck the mast atop one of the twin towers. Apparently, it happened all the time, so my taxi driver said, but neither he nor I were to know that it would never happen again.

The following morning, while in a breakfast meeting in the basement of the Hilton Hotel in mid-town Manhattan, we received the news that was to make the world stop.

I had already checked out of my room, thinking that after my meeting I would pay a leisurely trip to the Museum of Art before catching a taxi back to the airport for my flight home. I realised, however, that I was going nowhere; no one on the island of Manhattan was. The bridges were sealed and U.S. Fighter jets were ominously patrolling the sky. I went to reception to ask if I might extend my stay and re-check in. The desk clerk sighed and assured me that would not be a problem—no one would be arriving to take my room. I stepped outside into what was a sunny morning with a perfect blue sky. The only evidence that the world was ending was the heavy smell of aircraft fuel that hung in the air. There was no noise, no dust, no sign of the horror that was unfolding 20 blocks away.

I have chequered memories of the next few days as we waited, watching the narrative unfold. I remember walking down the middle of a deserted Fifth Avenue in the afternoon to seek solace in the greenery of Central Park. I remember sleeping with my clothes on, in case I had to leave in a hurry. And I remember trying to phone home to let my wife and children know that I was alive. I knew they must be watching scenes of twisted wreckage and smouldering masonry on TV and I had to let them know I was safe, if not exactly sound. Immediately after the attack, there was no mobile phone service in Manhattan. This was undoubtedly in part due to the fact the main transmitter masts were now lying in the streets of lower Manhattan, but also, I have since learned, because the authorities would have taken control of such means of communication to minimise further acts of terrorism. What did work were the landlines, but not to the UK. I dialled every number I knew and managed to wake my brother in the middle of the night in Melbourne, Australia. Surprised to hear my voice at such an hour, he asked if everything was alright. I answered simply that I was in New York. Unaware of what was happening he said that was nice for me and I urged him to get up and turn his TV on and then to phone my family in Scotland.

But if there is one memory that encapsulates those twisted days, it was a moment in the hotel lobby. Like me, everyone in the hotel who had been there on Sept 11 was still there, locked down in the fortress that Manhattan had become. A flip chart in the reception area was being used by the hotel to provide updates regarding transport and in particular airports. That morning—it was perhaps the 12th or 13th—the lobby was full of people milling around, consulting the latest updates. Suddenly, as if the volume control had been turned down, the lobby hushed. Through the revolving door walked a young firefighter in his full protective gear, helmet and breathing apparatus. Like a sculpture he was completely white, covered from helmet to boot in concrete dust. He walked slowly, diagonally across the lobby, through a crowd of people that simply yielded to his presence and parted to create a path to the reception desk. He was clearly exhausted and he slumped on the desk as the clerk checked him in. Firefighters had been drafted in from all surrounding areas and after their shifts were being put up in the city’s hotels. From our perspective in mid-town this was our clearest view of the events that were unfolding so close to us.

On 9/11 I was frightened, and while I knew why, I was surprised. This was a stark moment where I was clearly living outside my narrative. The story of me was still unfolding and I was more than usually aware of it all. Fifteen years on, I still cannot watch the pieces of film that show the planes crashing into the towers. I know they exist, but whenever they are shown I have managed to turn my head. But, I can now look back and I can now tell the story for it now has a beginning, a middle and an end.   While I was living it, while in my moment, there was no reassurance of such, no sense of a story, and importantly no sense of an ending, happy or sad.

Our journey through time offers us many things, but perhaps the greatest of these is perspective. The cavalcade through a single moment that we call our existence is translated into a story we call our life. That narrative is important, but it is also an illusion; a story that we tell afterwards as if it was real, as if it represents what it was to be in that moment. In truth, the past is gone and the future never comes. All there is, and all there ever can be, is the moment of the present in which we live.

© Allan Gaw 2016


My latest book…

Testing the Waters

Lessons from the History of Drug Research

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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My other books currently available on kindle:

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