With multiple sclerosis, the lesser of two evils is the one you choose

It's not quite like zugzwang in chess where every move makes things worse

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

by Benjamin Hofmeister |

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My father taught me to play chess when I was barely old enough to say the names of the pieces. 

I wasn’t a child prodigy or anything like that. I never joined a chess club or competed in a single tournament. I simply enjoyed the game and could hold my own in my peer group. Looking back, I think it was the game’s strategy that captured my attention. Long before my time in the military as an adult, I liked the challenge of forward planning and trying to anticipate an opponent. 

It wasn’t long after learning the basics of the game that I started to pick up on a little of the lingo. Chess has been around a bit longer than I have, and all the key strategies and positions, from the opening move to the closing one, have names. I knew about three of them, but there’s a lot more than that. I recently learned a name for a position that immediately made me think — not of chess, but of multiple sclerosis (MS).

In both the game of chess and living with MS, every decision can either improve your situation, maintain it, or make it worse. If you ever find yourself in a position where a move must be made, but every option makes the situation worse, you are in a zugzwang

Zugzwang is a German word that essentially means a forced move. With multiple sclerosis, often every move feels forced. I’m reminded of an instructor in the Army admonishing me, “Make a decision. Even If it’s wrong, do something!”

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How do you define defiance while living with MS?

Forcing a move

I don’t mean to imply that our disease and the struggle with its symptoms are a game. In chess, you have to move because it is a game and those are the rules. Even if you forfeit, that’s a move. With MS, however, sometimes no decision can be your decision. That can feel more like giving yourself grace than giving up. 

Sometimes we are put in a position where every option seems like a bad one, but to me, MS doesn’t exactly fit the definition of zugzwang. This is another situation where we need our own word. Multiple sclerosis can force us to choose a move when there don’t seem to be any right choices. Maybe the right one for you is the right choice. Maybe the best of the worst is best.

I don’t play much chess anymore. Loss of hand strength and manual dexterity make board games, especially those with small pieces, difficult to the point of frustration. I could call out the positions and have someone move the pieces for me, but it’s not the same. An “Aha!” or “Gotcha!” moment doesn’t feel quite right if I’m not the one setting the piece down firmly and with a sense of finality. It’s hard to dictate smugness.

If I ever get to say “checkmate” to multiple sclerosis or even just put it on the defensive, I intend to have my hand on the piece. And yes, I will be smug.

Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


David Orlowski avatar

David Orlowski

I find if you stop laughing that’s when your problems start

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

So true David!


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