I tried to explain the other day the Finnish language word ”sisu” to my American friend. I was not satisfied with the lame clichés I came up with. So far, I am convinced the word just doesn’t translate to any other language, at least it cannot be summarized with one word only. But let’s try with a few more words to learn more about this peculiar, Nordic concept.
We might all agree that sisu is a type of persistency, guts, a ”never-give-up” -attitude. Even if the situation is next to hopeless, a Finn with sisu refuses to give in. He will climb the steepest hill, dive the deepest river, march endless roads or wander in the wilderness – and realize in the end it was probably not even worth it. But he will do it once more, if required. And twice, maybe gritting his teeth, but doing it. Ad infinitum.
Don’t get me wrong: sisu is definitely not about mindless banging head against the wall, oh no. A Finn banging his head against the wall is well aware of the fact he might get some serious headache. He is well aware that the wall most probably won’t break. But it might crack a little. ”At least I tried my best.”
It is probably easiest to explain the essence of sisu with some well known examples from the history books. Conscious of the fact I might sound unfashionably nationalistic referring to the second world war, I will do it nonetheless. When some other nations would put their hands up of the mere vague thought of facing the super power of its time, Finns – a young nation with small and poorly equipped armed forces would take a battle against the Soviet war machine not just as a challenge but as a necessity.
Although Finns won some legendary battles, they eventually lost the war, but that’s not the key issue here who actually won. ”At least we tried.” And in this particular case, the mere trying probably saved our status as an independent nation.
And we must not forget Lasse Virén, an olympic gold medalist, who would fall after eleven rounds, stand up, catch his rivals – and win the 10 000 m race in Munich in 1972. As hopeless as it might have seemed to him, giving up was not an option. He later said in an interview that it was a perfect moment to quit, no one would have blamed. But he didn’t quit. Watch Lasse fall and win.
Well, sometimes our beloved four letter word sisu makes its appearance in less noble contexts. I continue with a less known example, since it is from my childhood. I was three years old, stubborn as ever, having a yearly medical check at a pediatrician where I was supposed to be weighed and measured etc. Since it probably was not one of my better days, I would refuse to co-operate. Totally. So, instead of nice figures and checks in the boxes, I would only get a medical certificate ”Sisukas tyttö!” Which means ”A girl with a lot of sisu!” Which, apparently goes for a normal, healthy three year old. My mother is still embarrassed for the incident.
And while I am at it, I continue with revelations from my past. My high school sweetheart once asked if I could bake some buns. I was stunned of the mere thought, and said ”sorry, I can’t” to which he responded ”have you ever even tried?”. It was my turn to be embarrassed and say ”no, I have never tried” and I finally made an effort to please him. I think I tried three times, not being able to produce anything delicious, and was then given an exemption. But I did try. I might not be able to bake the damned buns, but I learned an important lesson not to say you can’t if you haven’t even tried.
I have been contemplating at times why there is no future tense in Finnish language. When describing the future, Finns use the present tense. When expressing intentions, Finns talk like they are already doing it. I wonder if there is a connection to sisu. ”Consider it done” is a very Finnish approach, there is no ”what if” or ”I’ll try that later”.
Now, I have reached 700 words and I am still not sure if I have succeeded to explain why those crazy Finns just keep on trying even if the odds are not on their side. So you just have to settle with the fact that sisu cannot be explained. It has to be experienced.
But at least I tried to explain…
* Pyydän anteeksi suomenkielisiltä lukijoiltani, että tämä postaus on englanniksi. Mutta eihän suomalaisille tarvitse selittää, mitä sisu tarkoittaa 😉 Ja kun olin jo kertaalleen ajatellut ja selittänyt tämän englanniksi, tuntui helpoimmalta kirjoittaakin se englanniksi.