Adventure + Creativity,  Career Pivots + Second Acts,  Health + Wellness,  Reflections

2021 is the year to embrace sisu, the Finnish art of grit

For the past several years, the Danish concept of hygge – finding coziness and contentment in life, especially during the long winter months – has been the subject of multiple books, media stories, and merchandising opportunities (even I wrote an article about it.)

In the early days of the pandemic, when we were mostly stuck inside, trying to keep fears at bay and dealing with our new reality, hygge made a lot of sense. Throw blankets and scented candles and roaring fires provided comfort. We learned to knit and baked bread and returned to the family dinner. We hygge-d our collective brains out, and if there was ever a year that required compassionate self-care, 2020 was it.

But I would argue that in 2021, we should look instead to another Scandanavian word: the Finnish concept of sisu.

Roughly translated, sisu means resilience, courage, fortitude; it sums up the character and backbone of a nation that spent centuries defending itself against takeover by Sweden and Russia and experiences winters so dark that, in some parts of the country, the sun does not rise above the horizon for 51 straight days, late November through early January. Sisu accounts for – or perhaps, is bolstered by – the tradition of jumping into ice-cold baths or taking a midwinter dip in the sea through a hole carved in the ice.

In other words, while the Danish concept of hygge invites us to linger by the fireplace under a blanket, protected from the driving snow, sisu demands that we strip off our clothes and propel, naked, into the snowbank. 

And right now, there’s something about that flavor of grit and determination that just seems more appropriate than cocoa and candles, yes?

I’ve always been fascinated by Scandanvian culture, and when my 23andMe report informed me I am nearly one-quarter Finn, I was pleased but not surprised. Part of me identifies deeply with the pluckiness of a people who faced down everything from long periods of darkness, to invasion and occupation from hostile forces, to bitter-cold temperatures with a steady, steely gaze: bring it on, we’ve got this. 

And then there’s the other part of me that curses the jarring touch of my steering wheel on a winter morning, gets grumpy when the sun rises too late or sets too early, and often can’t even bring myself to wade into the lake past my knees if the water isn’t balmy. 

The spark of sisu that has defined cultures around the world throughout time, allowing them to survive and thrive during incredibly challenging hard times in human history, is still alive in all of us – but often it’s buried under fear of the unknown and a preference for ease.

I’m not trying to romanticize hard times. I don’t want to be plunged into poverty, famine, war…or even the Baltic Sea on a cold winter day (though perhaps Wim Hof will change my mind about that last one.) But looking back at my life, I can also clearly see that some of my hardest times have been the most profound in terms of personal development. And it’s always the moment when my sisu burns brightest that things start to happen.

Occasionally retreating into comfort – hygge – is natural and necessary – and never more so than when you’ve experienced a blow to your health, relationships, or way of life. But at some point we all have to set our gazes with determination and get back out there – whatever “out there” looks like in this new world – to create, dream, and live again.

Reinvention and sisu go hand-in-hand. It’s that inner determination that sees us through challenging times; it’s the challenge itself that blows on the deeply-buried spark of sisu and brings it into full flame. Like anything else, learning to face adversity with courage takes practice, but the more we do it, the more we our develop muscle memory.

And the beauty is that right now, almost all of us are undergoing some form of reinvention…so we’re all in it together.

As we explore what “reinvention” looks like here, I’m going to lean in on the concept of sisu. First of all, it’ll give me an excuse to research my Finnish heritage and maybe try some unfamiliar foods along the way, but also, I believe it’s a concept we could all stand to embrace as we face down year 2 of COVID-19, political tensions, health and economic challenges and more.

Getting used to doing hard things is a necessary element of sisu. “Hard” is relative and we all avoid different things, but one thing is certain: there are many opportunities to practice embracing challenge every single day, whether it’s something small and simple like eating a healthier breakfast or big and flashy, like training for a marathon. For the rest of 2021, I’m going to challenge myself to do one hard thing, big or small, every day, because the more I flex my sisu muscle, the easier it will become to do bigger hard things.

I will be documenting some of these “hard things” over on my Instagram feed and writing about them here, and I hope you’ll follow along – and perhaps join in.

And when I’m ready to take a dip in a frozen lake, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Photo by Ozgu Ozden on Unsplash

One Comment

  • Helena

    It’s been a standing joke this past year, among my Finnish friends here in London, that “sisu” is indeed what has gotten us through. That and coffee and cinnamon buns, ha ha. I’m glad that I can call you a fellow Finn, I’d wager that there are rather a lot in Minnesota. Keep us posted on the ancestry deep dive, I come from an area of Finland where it was common that at least one extended family member had emigrated to the US. Some returned, many stayed on.

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