May 28, 2020 01:49PM
By Shannon McKenzie
Sisu: a Finnish concept described as stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience and hardiness. It is generally accepted to be untranslatable.
My 97-year-old Finnish grandmother passed away last month, and fortunately I was able to fly to Idaho for the funeral. The family was sad to lose our matriarch, but happy to celebrate her long, healthy and mostly happy life. My cousins and I used to joke about what a bad driver she was; now we reminisced about the near-death experiences we’d had with her at the wheel. No weather conditions kept her off the road or slowed her down, so sliding on snow and ice was par for the course, and while we would be hyperventilating after a near miss, she was completely nonplussed by (or perhaps unaware of) the calamity narrowly avoided. She was also notoriously late for everything, and not just a little late either. If a family dinner was supposed to start at 5 p.m., she would arrive at 7 or 8 p.m. The family would compensate by giving her an earlier start time, but even that didn’t fully work, so in the end she was tasked with bringing dessert versus a main course.
Her 21st birthday was December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II. Her brother enlisted shortly thereafter. Before that, when Finland was repelling a Russian invasion in the Winter War of 1939, she sent care packages of much-needed items to relatives. She was married only a few years before her husband died in a logging accident, leaving her with three young children all under the age of 4. Shortly afterward, her own mother became bedridden with debilitating arthritis; her father most likely had Alzheimer’s. She took care of both of them until their deaths. Her life was not easy.
At the funeral, the minister talked of the Finnish word sisu, which can be translated as “stubbornness” but also means a determination to go on despite difficulties, and how my grandmother embodied this quality. All my life, I’ve heard that “Finns are stubborn,” and I really appreciated the minister’s positive presentation. According to Emilia Lahti, an expert on positive psychology who has researched sisu extensively, “it’s about not seeing a silver lining in the clouds, and yet jumping into the storm anyway.… Sisu is embodied by people everywhere who defy the odds and hold on to hope when there at first seems to be none.”
Lahti’s words were fresh in my mind when I received an editorial submission that became this month’s Generation Spotlight. It’s an interview with a teenager named Moises, who just two years ago fled violence and poverty in El Salvador to build a safe and productive life here in the South. Through hard work—and sisu—Moises is defying the odds now, just like my grandmother did years ago, and his story is no less inspiring. I hope you enjoy it.
Wishing you much sisu this holiday season and into the new year,