Sisu. It might just be the most overused word in the Finnish language. But it’s difficult to deny, when looking back at our history. I examine various aspects of so-called Sisu to see if we can determine once and for all: Is it real, & could there be a scientific basis we can explain right now?
Sisu. It might just be the most overused word in the Finnish language. And yet, there’s something about it that seems difficult to deny, when looking at our history and ourselves as people. In this post, I will examine various aspects and examples of so-called Sisu, including in my own life, to see if we can determine once and for all: Is it real? And if it is, could there be some scientific basis we can explain right now?
I am going to sound a bit rough for a minute, but bear with me. Here’s a quick exercise for you: Type the word into Google search, tab over to image results and see what comes up; you’re bound to find a ton of products with the name slapped on it. The critic in me says that this is an easy marketing ploy, made for people who want to feel proud of something about themselves. I mean, if you’re Finnish, it appears to somehow be a given that you have sisu, whether or not you actually lift a finger. Products with the word on it promote such thinking; we can chew on our sisu pastilles while driving a car with a sisu bumper sticker, with a keychain saying sisu in the ignition, and of course we have the t-shirt on too.
Xylitol might give me something, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t sisu. And sisu vitamins? Are they somehow infused with the stuff on top of the “Ester-C”?
Here is the beginning of the company’s “About” blurb, which goes on to explain their use of the name:
Sisu means “inner strength”
The word “sisu,” (pronounced see-sue), can be loosely translated from Finnish as “strength and stubborn determination” combined with “stamina and courage” – especially when overcoming obstacles.”
Alright, fair enough. They don’t pretend to have an exact definition, and they are doing like many companies do in trying to find a name which represents them well. It’s hard to fault them for that, nor is it the intention here. It’s not even my intention to sit here and try to come up with something better. After all, there are probably many more qualified people out there working on it right this minute. But it does highlight how sort of vague all of our definitions are, when the best we can do is loosely translate it. And the existence of all these products and other physical manifestations tell me that more than anything, perhaps we have to keep on reminding ourselves that we have this… this something.
When is it that we actually need inner strength, after all? When do we need strength and stubborn determination, stamina and courage, or whatever else, the most? It’s when life throws everything at us and we become overwhelmed for a little bit, forgetting that we have overcome many things before and shall do so again.
There are times in Finland’s history where our ancestors sure as heck needed determination to survive – oh, pretty much the whole last thousand years, give or take. Caught between much larger aggressors, the Finns were rarely given much opportunity to develop their culture, even into the mid 20th century. When examining whether something such as “sisu” is real, we must also study the science of genetics, and how traits are passed on from one generation to the next.
As touched on in my previous post, epigenetics takes the study a step further than saying that everything is all biologically determined – it says essentially that experience shapes biology and vice-versa. If the Finns as a people faced insurmountable odds for generation after generation, according to epigenetics then what you would get are a people who are pretty darn good at facing insurmountable odds.
I think that this is probably the key, and although it is most well seen in the Finns, perhaps it is really at its core a human survival mechanism. It’s probable that Native Americans have something similar, for instance, which was what brought the two peoples together in the first place. And my father, in particular, well, he was only surrounded by death virtually every year of his childhood. My mother was in Finland at the time, but the situation was very poor there too.
In short, two people who experienced a lot of hardship for years, and who both survived, escaped and then found each other. I come from them. My instincts are the result of theirs, and their parents before them. There are times in this life when I seriously thought I was done for, but refused to just give up. I struggled up from rock-bottom, to a state of being sure that I could overcome it. I formed my own personal mantra:
Dig deeper within yourself each day, to do that little bit more than you thought you were able to do yesterday.
Many Finns today come from the same background, and it’s no wonder that we all feel this common trait that bonds us. But if these are the conditions under which sisu is formed, is it guaranteed to continue? If we enter cushy lives where most things are taken care of for us, if we see little adversity, will there still be sisu?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not asking for another war. I’m not asking for anything like what we have had to face before. But maybe I’m asking that we don’t forget that sisu, if it exists, didn’t just come from nowhere. It’s not some random gift that God chose to bestow upon us as some sort of chosen ones. There was a heavy price for it.
Side note: It’s easier for me to understand in light of this theory of mine, why Sweden, where I live today, is such a different country with such different people, despite a deep shared history with Finland. To the point: Swedes don’t really like confrontation. If they have a problem with you, it will take a lot to get that out of them. Finns are, shall we say, a bit more confrontational. I’m not saying one is superior, but anyway this could explain it: Recently, Sweden made a pretty big deal of “being at peace” for 200 years. If most Swedes, genetically speaking did not face the same sort of trials until many generations back (if ever), then it’s possible that this accounts for a difference in their demeanor from the Finns “self-determination”. Well, Heja Sverige and Sisu Suomi, I suppose. These are the things that make the world an interesting place to live in.
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