Rowing toward the future, but directed by the past

Living with multiple sclerosis means grappling with uncertainties ahead

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

by Benjamin Hofmeister |

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I received a copy of “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” for Christmas two years ago. It provides names for emotions that need defining, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed leafing through it. I’m not particularly sorrowful, and I don’t really find the majority of the text to be sorrowful, either. I don’t know how I’d describe it. I just know I like the author’s way of giving a voice to some complex feelings.

Having multiple sclerosis (MS) comes with its share of complex feelings, so it’s no wonder I see them so often in the pages of this book. I’ve already referenced one of the definitions in a column and will doubtless do it again.

Actually, I suppose it’d be more accurate to say that I assume I will. There’s so much in the book that could be easily applied to a life with MS. I can’t see myself not referencing it again, but I can’t see the future — because, according to the word that inspired me today, I’m facing the other way.

avenoir — n. “The desire that memory could flow backward.

“We take it for granted that life moves forward. But you move as a rower moves, facing backwards: you can see where you’ve been, but not where you’re going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way.”

— John Koenig, “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”

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Working with my past

I try not to spend a lot of time dwelling on the past. I can’t change it, can’t go back to give myself advice or warnings about the future. I do dwell on it sometimes because I sure could’ve planned better if I’d been able to see what was coming.

One problem is that I’d have to go back and try to give warnings nearly every day. Multiple sclerosis doesn’t just blindside us when we experience the first symptoms or when we’re presented with the diagnosis. Instead, we’re constantly bombarded as MS touches every aspect of our lives.

The other problem is that the guy shaping my future — steering the boat — is I, and that guy can’t hear my hindsight-based wisdom. It’s not that he thinks he knows better or is ignoring me; he just can’t hear it. He’s not just a reckless teenage version of me, either. Sometimes that younger version of me who’s steering us both to our future is only an hour (or even less) younger than I am now.

It’s the unknown that makes the future scary. Multiple sclerosis adds in a measure of uncertainty above and beyond the norm, which for me makes the future extra worrisome. Maybe when I dwell on the past, it’s not so much out of a desire to change it, but more because it’s already been experienced and is emptied of fear.

I sometimes think I’d like to face the other way on my journey, but I don’t know if seeing what was ahead would be more frightening than not knowing. I expect it would be — especially with MS.

Not rowing isn’t an option either, as much as I might enjoy just staying in one place for a while.

I’ll just keep going, rowing as best I can and calling out to other boats. The person steering mine can’t hear me, but maybe the people steering theirs can.

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.


Eleanor Whitney avatar

Eleanor Whitney

All so true. I thank my body when it works well, but MS is a day to day struggle with an unknown future.

Cindy Nunan avatar

Cindy Nunan

I know I’m a tad emotional these days because my Mom just passed away, but your article “Rowing Toward the Future…” truly struck a chord with me. There are so many meanings and lessons learned from participating in rowing as I did just for one great summer with the local women’s masters team. My daughter was a cox in high school and college. Navigating MS is sometimes like navigating the Schuylkill River (Phila.,PA) after a storm had deposited nature’s debris!

Kathy avatar


So very true!

Michael Pearson avatar

Michael Pearson

Boys in the boat. Row for MS. Paddle outrigger for MS. Because you can. Enjoy being outside in the fresh air to get your exercise. Explore the world and brave any body of water because you can.
Embrace all that you can. Live a full, healthy, wonderful life!

Lisa Kandel avatar

Lisa Kandel

I have been putting all of my troubles in the very capable hands of the Sweet Lord! Without him, I can do nothing. When my balance issues terrify me, I give it over to God. The Sweet Lord always makes a way for me to do what I have to do each day to live my life to the fullest. He has filled my life with family and friends that are always there to help me, especially when I am struggling. MS is very unpredictable, but with the Lord everything is possible! Stay blessed!

Bess Coleman avatar

Bess Coleman

Thanks for all the good thoughts Ben. I haven't thought about it for years(that rowing is always backwards) . But a great analogy for life (especially with MS) and looking back is great but for me, sometimes the source of much sadness when l just want to do the things that l used to enjoy. i. e. walking wherever l want to, exploring anywhere. I could go on and on but, another day!


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