I have Scandinavian heritage, but nothing (to my knowledge) that traces back to Finland. Which is unfortunate because I strongly identify with the Finnish concept of sisu. But I can only claim it as a spiritual descendent, not as a biological or cultural descendent.

My brother seems to feel the same way. He’s the one who told me about sisu. And it seems to be one of those cultural concepts that’s notoriously difficult to translate — like gezelligheid in the Netherlands… or hygge in Denmark… or taarof in Iran. I don’t even know if I fully understand sisu enough to be sharing the concept with others. But the internet helps. And I found this particularly-enlightening description on the website of a now-defunct American university on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan which had Finnish roots:

To the Finnish people, sisu has a mystical, almost magical meaning. Sisu is a unique Finnish concept. It is a Finnish term that can be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity.

Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage. It is a word that cannot be fully translated. It defines the Finnish people and their character.  It stands for the philosophy that what must be done will be done, regardless of cost.

Sisu is an inherent characteristic of the Finnish people. You might call it backbone, spunk, stamina, guts, or drive and perseverance.  It is a measure of integrity that surpasses the hardship and sees through to the end.

Sisu is the quality that lets them pick up, move on, and learn something from previous failures. It’s the hard-jawed integrity that makes them pay their war debts in full. In short, it’s the indomitable will that sets Finns apart and explains many of the incredible things they do.

Due to its cultural significance, Sisu is a common element of brand names in Finland. For example, there are Sisu brand cars (and Sisu armored vehicles), the icebreaker MS Sisu, and a brand of strong-tasting pastilles manufactured by Leaf. Mount Sisu is the name of a mountain first ascended by mountain climber Veikka Gustafsson in the Antarctic.

Finlandia University: Our History & Heritage

I think the idea of sisu appeals to me because of its application in disciplines like running, hiking, bicycling, marriage, family, and ministry. These are all things that require a certain level of grit, or mental toughness. And I think I’m not super-talented when it comes to any of these disciplines, but I think I might be above-average when it comes to sisu, or stick-to-it-iveness. Getting through this last school year of H2O ministry — and especially the last semester when we had more ministry projects with fewer ministry workers — was an exercise in sisu. Getting through the gauntlet of last week’s family adventures was an exercise in sisu. And with a little bit of an opportunity to catch my breath, I look forward to having more opportunities to keep cultivating the exercise of sisu in my life for years to come.

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