The Origins of Sisu

The Finnish word ‘sisu’ lacks an exact synonym in any language but is often translated into English as determination, guts, perseverance and the capacity to endure significant hardships. It means to stand your ground in the face of adversity and remain functional when the only logical thing would be to run away and/or hide. Etymologically the word is derived from ‘sisus´, which quite literally refers to the physical internal organs of a human or animal body (literally its ‘guts’), or it can simply mean the interior of an object.

HOW DID SISU COME TO DENOTE DETERMINATION AND PERSISTENCE,
AND WHAT DO GUTS HAVE TO DO WITH GLORY?

The curious connection between intestines and indomitable begins to make at least some sense when you dive into etymology. One suggestion is that the connection goes back to at least the mid 14th century when it was believed that the intestines and bowel were the seat of emotions and spirit. As far back as 500 BC, Greek philosophers such as Aeschylus regarded the bowels as the origin of more violent passions such as anger and rage, but the Hebrews saw them as the seat of tender affections such as kindness, benevolence, and compassion (Etymology online and Stanford.edu). Nowadays both words sisu and guts are more commonly used to imply bravery, but a closer inspection of the two reveals their differences as a result of their unique cultural evolution.

Whereas ‘having guts’ primarily refers to displaying the courage and audacity to do something risky, ‘having sisu’ has the added dimension of doing so with integrity, honesty and humility. In Finland, sisu is not so much about individual acts but is an entire way of life, a life philosophy. At the core of sisu seem to be equanimity, something akin to vital force and relatively high emotion regulation, and these characteristics merge into something that William James could have perhaps called ‘the second wind’ of mental stamina. Sisu is about fighting through a stone wall without boasting about it. This way, it may bear some resemblance to ancient Stoic philosophy. In short, guts and sisu may be described as twins raised the same family, but who then wandered off on their own and developed their own unique characteristics.

Seneca and sisu


THE ANCIENT, MEDIEVAL AND MODERN DAY ‘PEOPLE OF SISU’
WERE ALL DIFFERENT ANIMALS

Dating back to the 16th century, when the first written remarks of sisu occurred, it was used to describe the quality of a person or a thing, its inherent tendency. In 1745, the Finnish writer Daniel Juslenius defined “sisucunda” in his dictionary as a particular location in the human body where ‘strong effects’ originated (Maija Länsimäki, 2003). The word was to describe a temperament of any kind, positive or negative. This idea reflects the Greek notion of the stomach as an animate agent: “it could feel its own emptiness and generate the sensation of hunger, break up food, and carefully separate useful nutrients from the chaff.” (A history of stomach…). In the historic literature of the 16th century Finland, when the country was governed by Sweden and the Lutheran clergy, the word quickly evolved to mean “bad tempered” (Tuomas Tepora, 2012). Indeed, from then up until the 19th century, sisu carried rather negative connotations and was used to describe a bad-natured person [‘pahansisuinen’: to be bad or ill meaning] (Maija Länsimäki). To act with sisu meant to display outrage and aggression. This definition seems to be quite opposed to the current positive qualities of perseverance and courage the word sisu more widely implies today.

Malala Yousafzai, a woman of sisu.
Malala Yousafzai, a modern day woman of sisu

The modern, positive concept of sisu arose originally out of the harsh and violent conditions under which Finns had to survive throughout their history, and it can be seen as a product of these conditions. Today, it is often used colloquially to refer to athletes, soldiers or national heroes, and more generally to anyone who endures stress in their daily lives, who chooses to stand up against injustice (people like Minna Canth, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and more recently Malala Yousafzai come to mind), or to persevere against slim odds.

However, these two seemingly opposite meanings from past and present are not as contradictory as one might think. They both share the notion of intensity and strength. In fact, there are some sisu-related nouns which can be interpreted as both negative and positive in their meaning (Länsimäki, 2003). In some related languages (such as Estonian), sisu still means the ‘inner part or content’, and Finnish is the only language where the word evolved to describe a character trait.

In summary, here’s the somewhat funny TL;DR version.  The original ‘sisu-esque’ people would today be represented by your heavily bipolar friend; you know, the one with the wild mood swings. There is always something intense going whenever they are around, but you can never know in advance whether you need a helmet or not to survive around them. Later on , thanks to the Lutheran clergy, ‘having sisu’ was referred to someone closer to your jerk uncle, who nobody wants to invite to the party because he inevitably gets drunk, acts badly, wrecks everything, and then calls you hungover the next morning to tell you that your party sucked. Today, however, ‘having sisu’ is epitomized by those people in your life who you know you can count on to fix things, stay strong, do a good job (even if no one is watching), and who never seem to give up.

GOING BEYOND PERSEVERANCE – BECAUSE SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO

When conducting my initial research on this topic, I discovered that in 1942 (right around the biggest heyday of sisu during the Winter War of 1939-1940), the newspaper Uusi-Suomi asked its readers to describe what sisu meant to them. They received around thousand responses. The main finding was a consensus that sisu is not mere persistence or determination, but is about pushing beyond the individual´s normal use of these qualities, and evolved to describe the entire collective experience of a nation which had endured extraordinary hardship. The conclusion of the survey was the following:

“Sisu is a power reserve built into the vertebrae of the Finns through hundreds of years of trials, and it enables extraordinary action beyond an individual´s normal performance during a crucial moment”.

More recently, the widely read Finnish magazine Suomen Kuvalehti asked its readers to nominate Finns who they believe display sisu. No instructions were given about what kind of people the readers were allowed to nominate, nor was it defined what sisu stands for. The results may be interpreted as one reflection about what kind of qualities sisu implies in the minds of contemporary Finns. An article, written by Susan Heikkinen and published in April 2013 , compiled the names of the people who were nominated. Although no more than 60 responses were received, the list is quite indicative of the typical qualities that someone who has sisu is believed to embody.

Among the many inspirational individuals on this list were a 92-year old war veteran who still lives independently and takes care of herself, a professional soccer player who continues to play competitively despite several accidents and never truly ‘making it’, a peace mediator in global conflicts, a mountain climber who survived near-death at the North Pole, a cross-country skier who despite wide discouragement won multiple Olympic medals, a professional ice-hockey player who returned to the rink after surviving cancer, the founder of a Finnish punk rock band for adults with developmental disabilities, a violinist whose fingers were cut off by an circular saw and fought through recovery to return to his orchestra, a competitive swimmer who won numerous accolades despite having muscular dystrophy, a survivor of domestic violence, a marathon runner with over 1500 competitive races under his belt, a doctor who is originally a refugee from Afghanistan, and a single-parent and long-time caregiver. This long list is a small but descriptive sample of what sisu symbolizes to modern Finns, and what kinds of narratives it helps create in people´s daily lives.

There is no evidence to suggest that sisu, as a psychological quality that enables individuals to push through hardship, is something unique to one nation. It’s actually the opposite. However, to understand why this culture of sisu became especially important in Finland, we have to study Finnish history. As the late historian and expert of Scandinavian culture, Dr. Richard Stites explained in an interview with The Washington Post (Thomas, 2006):

“[Finland´s history] includes lots of wars, invasions and foreign occupation. Finns are not merely the victims of severe weather. They have not been treated well by next-door neighbors Sweden and Russia. Sisu has sustained Finns through all of their long struggles.”

finalnd winter
Sisu has long described as being integral to a true understanding of Finnish culture.

This cultural development happened organically, as a response to a challenging living environment. Indeed, the transformations that the meaning of the word has undergone also seem to reflect this journey over the course of time. Sisu has long described as being integral to a true understanding of Finnish culture. The Washington Post journalist Bill Thomas writes that “[sisu] implies a trait much deeper in the Finnish character, so deep, in fact, that it’s best observed in the dead of winter when added reserves are needed just to make it from one five-hour day to the next.” In 2013, Running Times Magazine reporter Adam Chase traveled to Finland in search of the true meaning of sisu. He came back feeling somewhat puzzled: ”I didn´t feel I’d acquired a solid grasp of sisu. But with time and distance for perspective, it grew on me.” (Adam Chase, Finding sisu). This sounds like a classic encounter with sisu. Even Finns often feel this way, and say that sisu is hard to fully explain or translate. It has to be experienced.

Indeed, I had the same feeling as I was delving through the material relating to sisu in the beginning of my research.

MOVING FORWARD, CLIMBING NEW HILLS

‘Context is the queen’, as I remember my old social psychology professor saying. Understanding sisu and how it came to be such a defining characteristic of Finns requires a deep examination of the country´s history, and this may also help us eventually unlock the key to its cultivation. I argue that sisu is not an entirely innate trait that one either has or does not have, but is a potential which we all share and is a result of the seamlessly interwoven fibers of society, the self and all that is between. This idea is something that is at the center of my research.

Understanding what comprises any individual’s behavior is an incredibly multi-layered and complex task. Current research implies that beliefs, mindset, experiences, cultural expectations, the examples we witness around us, and even epigenetics may all carry one piece of the puzzle. Through the introduction, research and testing of new ideas, we bring previously invisible worlds into our periphery, much like climbing on top of a mountain to gaze over the landscape, and we give ourselves and others something to aim at in the dark. Where there used to perhaps be a void, we have a target for our curious arrows. Similarly, one of the main prerogatives of the new research on sisu is to expand our language and thinking, and to thus transform the ways in which we perceive our opportunities and abilities.

As the late researcher and psychologist, Christopher Peterson (2008), put it: ”There are lessons to be learned in all cultures about what makes life worth living, and no language has a monopoly on the vocabulary for describing the good life. The notion of ikigai [another, Japanese, cultural construct that is being researched] is a good reminder to positive psychologists in the United States that our science should not simply be western export.”

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” (Sharon Begley). The best news? We are all invited to make a contribution.

© Emilia Lahti

6 thoughts on “The Origins of Sisu

  1. It moves me. Makes me feel that there are bounderies beyond the bounderies, un this special space of sisu which contaron everything and Nothing. A space of total present and presence yo be, what ever you want. A space florecer and no where, but also a space of Hope, bit not a futuro hope but a vital force that , could be a sight am insight ir a space yo ley It be.

    Like

  2. It moves me. Makes me feel that there are bounderies beyond the bounderies, un this special space of sisu which contaron everything and Nothing. A space of total present and presence yo be, what ever you want. A space florecer and no where, but also a space of Hope, bit not a futuro hope but a vital force that , could be a sight am insight ir a space yo ley It be.

    Like

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