I feel as if I’ve found treasure when I learn a new word, so I was delighted to discover sisu (pronounced see-su). It’a a word that’s so important in Finland it’s become part of the national culture. I don’t know Finnish, but I do understand – and desire – the qualities the word embodies: determination, perseverance, courage . That doesn’t mean momentary bravery, but the ability to remain courageous in the face of overwhelming odds.
This brings me to my husband. When he was given a stark diagnosis Mel said , “I don’t like the cards I’ve been dealt but I’ll play the hand the best I can.” That’s not only courage, it’s what Hemingway famously called “grace under pressure.”
Is there anyone who doesn’t have to cope with pressure of one kind or another? Some of us fold up under it. I confess that my original reaction to my husband’s illness was a tearful, “Why us?” He said, ”Why not us?”
The Finnish soldiers revere the concept of sisu and believe it gave them the fortitude to fight the powerful Soviet army in 1939 and perseverance during months of dangerous sub-zero weather.
But challenges don’t have to be historic or life-threatening, they can be wrapped in any ordinary moment. How about the sngle mother coming home from a long day in the office, “too tired toto do anything but crawl into bed,” as a friend put it, yet summoning strength to give her children the undivided attention they need? The Finns understand that as “calling on your sisu.”
And what about writers who get a discouraging series of rejections? Their sisu isn’t the ultimate publication, but the detrmination to keep going to the computer each day. For sisu doesn’t mean the goal, but what you do to reach it.
On a far more major scale, what about those of us who have to endure the loss of a loved one? Do we see ourselves as helpless (and hopeless) victims – or do we find the strength within ourselves to move on?
Another personal note: Six weeks after Mel lost his valiant battle I heard that one of our favorite poets, Stanley Kunitz, was giving a reading in the public library. In a wrenching struggle I decided to go to the reading for both Mel and myself. I was numb, could barely hear a word Kunitz read. But without realizing it, I was taking a sisu step toward a necessary new life.
For ultimately sisu means refusing to accept your limits, then willing yourself to go beyond them.
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