First of all, let’s just take a moment to enjoy the aesthetic decadence of that word. It’s zippy, it’s got zest. In some ways, as we will see, it captures a greater than zero percentage of the zeitgeist. It is every bit the equal of “zozzled,” a Jazz Age term for drunk.
But “zugzwang” isn’t merely a synonym for inebriation. Many of you may know the word already; it is a term in chess, a game I know little about other than I have no aptitude for it. Which I’m OK with.
If you want to know the truth, and I sense you do, I have ethical issues with chess, and not purely because I’m not good at it. I don’t think it’s right to force horses to move only in “L” shapes. They’re wild, beautiful creatures: let them roam where their spirits take them! Also, the Bishop’s proximity to the King and Queen suggest an improper conflation of Church and State.
But back to “zugzwang.”
The word, a noun, describes a situation in which a player is compelled to move, but any move open to the player not only fails to improve their prospects, it will weaken their position. Worse, the seasoned and savvy Chesser (pretty sure that’s not a thing) knows each subsequent move will aggravate the already dire situation. Each move is guaranteed to cause harm and bring the Chessilator (or Chessatrix) closer to inevitable defeat. But the dictates of the game require the moves be made.
I love this word for more than its devil-may-care prodigality with the letter “Z.” I’m drawn to this perennial dictionary cellar-dweller because it captures a condition I have sometimes felt myself. And although I wouldn’t wish this feeling on anyone, I also hope and believe I’m far from alone. There are some days (months, years) in which getting out of bed is a necessity to be endured rather than what I assume most people feel in the morning.
Most people, I’m guessing, feel sometimes happy, sometimes stressed thinking about the day ahead, and more times than not not thinking much of anything when they rise and shine (a familiar sounding phrase). Either way, most move about with a certainty that was factory-installed in their brains’ motherboards that life is innately worth the effort.
But that’s not a given for some of us. Whether this a result of faulty chemistry, a toxic environment, poor life choices, or and admixture of the three, some of us feel we have no say in our options, that the game is hopelessly rigged, the dice clearly loaded, and calendars catalogue an unbroken string of sucker bets.
And for some, realistically, that’s all true.
Or may as well be. There are people who simultaneously doubt the existence of God yet are positive He/She/They are out to get them. This overlaps with Zugzwang. In fact, perhaps that’s what that state of mind should be called. Or maybe “Zagzwung.” Or, and I’m just spitballing here, “Ziggy.” Although I think that’s the name of a comic strip character. One whose comic conceit, come to think about it, is based on his life being a veritable endless zigzagging zipline of zugzwangs.
Dear Lord: could that be why he was named Ziggy in the first place? Did you just get chiils? I’ve got chills.
I’m not a scholar, and that’s a question best left for the historians to debate. At any rate, I think it best we leave naming that yawning chasm of existential despair to the marketing department. The larger point is that this state of being, a mathematical truth in chess, can feel just as concrete in people’s lives.
But life isn’t chess. The horses don’t move in “L” shapes. There may be rules, but I haven’t been able to get anyone to show them to me, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say they are, at best, guidelines.
Some say we can end our feelings of hopelessness and loss by viewing our earthly journey as insubstantial and invisible as air when compared to deeper cosmic truths. I’m not saying they’re wrong. They may be right. I’m not nearly smart enough to suss that out, although I do think my Ziggy-Zugzwang connection merits further study.
But the thing about air is that, while it seems insubstantial and invisible (most of the time), it isn’t. In fact, of course, it’s a fundamental requirement for life as well as ubiquitous, presuming you’re not underwater. I would humbly suggest, for people experiencing varying degrees zugzwang, the key is not to ignore that feeling. It feels real; it feels substantial, and as we stare down the barrel of our coming days, it cuts a striking presence. You’re not alone in feeling that way.
It isn’t real, though. There are too many variables in life, even more than in chess, a game known for its virtually endless variables. Life, as many of us know to our cost, isn’t a game. Well, there is a game call “Life,” but that’s not life life.
So to those who feel their lives caught in a zugzwang, as I sometimes do: take heart. In fact, get jazzed, hell, get zozzled if that’s your thing. Because while life compels us to move, our fates are not fated.
Zugzwang! Sorry, I just wanted to say it one more time.
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