A Friday Story: Harness Your Inner Sisu
A reluctant traveler heads to Finland, finds his inner sisu, and inspires the rest of us to discover our personal storehouses of fortitude, perseverance and chutzpah — and where they might take us.
“Curiosity,” the Irish novelist James Stephens said, “will conquer fear more than bravery will.”
Recently, I’ve been contemplating the connection between curiosity and bravery, an exploration unexpectedly catalyzed by the Canadian/global treasure that is Eugene Levy and his new docuseries The Reluctant Traveler on AppleTv+.
In the first episode of the series, Levy (aka ‘Johnny Rose” to us Schitt’s Creek enthusiasts) travels to the Lapland region of Finland inside the Arctic Circle where he is subjected to various experiences far outside his comfort zone, including cooking reindeer tenderloin over an open fire, driving a team of huskies through a snow-covered forest, and floating on a frozen lake.
For most of his 76 years of life, Levy, a brilliant actor and comedic writer, has not been particularly adventuresome (at least not outside his artistic choices). He likes his creature comforts. While his work has required occasional travel from his home bases in Toronto or Pacific Palisades, he is not one to land in a place he’s never visited and set out on his own to discover what delights might await him off the beaten path. He’ll stick to exploring what his suite or the lobby of whatever luxury hotel he might be staying in have to offer and call it a day, thank you kindly.
Nevertheless, when we meet Levy in The Reluctant Traveler’s first episode, he is standing in the middle of a Finnish forest somewhere inside the Arctic Circle, waiting to be picked up by a snowmobile-drawn sleigh. There he meets local guide Kaisa Savolainen, who gives him a quick orientation to Finnishness as they are spirited through the winter wonderland that is Rovaniemi, Lapland, tucked beneath reindeer pelts, ice gathering in Levy’s legendary eyebrows.
“Have you heard about Finnish sisu,” Savolainen asks Levy, who says he has not. “Sisu is like we never give up.”
“So, sisu is like grit and determination?” Levy says.
“Mmm, it is,” she replies. “It would be really nice if you went deep into the Finnish culture and find your own sisu.”
“I’ll be looking for it,” Levy says, trying to hold his skepticism at bay with his famously round-bespectacled eyes frozen open. “Whether I find it is another story”
I’ll admit I had never heard the term sisu and didn’t know much about Finland before watching The Reluctant Traveler pilot last week. The sum total of my knowledge of one of the world’s northernmost countries was: A couple of my brother’s snowboarding high school buddies in Connecticut were originally from Finland; I followed an aurora borealis live camera feed from Lapland religiously during the first year or so of COVID lockdown; and — fun fact — half of our dog’s DNA is Finnish.
Our family’s canine member, Elaine “Stritchie” Stritch Possley, is half Finnish Lapphund, a breed of reindeer-herding dogs the approximate size and (slightly stouter) profile of a smallish Husky. (We know she is half Finnish because we had her DNA tested a few years back. Yes, I am that dog person.) However, if you’ve seen Stritchie (pictured below), you’ll know she is not approximately the size of a smallish Husky. She is 10 pounds of solid sass, with the curly tail, double-coat, and overall profile of her Finnish kin — just in miniature form and with a quarter Maltese and a quarter Shitzu thrown in for good measure (and her adorable underbite.)
By the way, Strich had a health scare last weekend, which is why this is a Friday Story instead of a Sunday Story. She’s on the mend now and will be fine, but the ordeal was more than a little stressful for all of us. It’s amazing how much of our life and joy revolves around the tiny fur baby lady who turns nine on the 20th.
While Stritchie convalesced beside me in bed this week, I did a deep dive into all things sisu.
First of all, Wes Anderson fans, it should not be conflated with Zissou, although I would argue there are some connections between the guiding Finnish national philosophy and what drives the crew of Steve Zissou’s ship the Belafonte (if not Zissou himself, exactly) in Anderson’s 2004 masterpiece, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Sisu is a true idiom and therefore has no one-to-one translation in English or any other language. But after some research, I have come to understand sisu as something between tenacity and sticktoitiveness, part guts, part resilience, with a healthy dollop of courage and a soupçon of chutzpah.
According to an article in a 2019 issue of the International Journal of Wellbeing by Emilia E Lahti Aalto, then a PhD student at Helsinki’s University School of Science and Technology and founder of the Finnish Positive Psychology Association, sisu is “embodied fortitude,” a Nordic cultural construct that describes the “enigmatic power that enables individuals to push through unbearable challenges.”
“The most prominent part of the conceptual core of sisu is the ability to surpass one’s preconceived limitations by accessing stored-up energy reserves,” Aalto wrote. “Sisu is invoked by adversity and is more about finding energy in the moment than about long-term endurance, goal-setting and achievement. Instead of being about conscious willing or mental fortitude, it implies a strength that is connected to the visceral and somatic dimension of human endurance.”
Aalto also believes that sisu is not confined to Finland. “Sisu points to a universal phenomenon of latent energy in the human system, lends it a name and contributes toward a more culturally rich conversation on the human experience of overcoming adversity across life challenges.”
About four years ago, when I was living in Idaho caring for my mother in hospice for the last months of her life, one of my brother’s best friends, Chopper, handed me a copy of The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu by the Canadian author and journalist Katja Pantzar. I didn’t read it at the time and had forgotten all about it until last week when I scrambled to find it as I felt compelled to immerse myself in all things sisu. (Years ago, the author Sandra Cisneros told me that books wait for us to be ready to read them. She was right. They do. And you find them precisely when and where you need them. #bookmagic)
Pantzar, who relocated permanently to Helsinki in the early 2000s and has raised her family there, learned what sisu is by living and practicing it. She says sisu is “a courageous mindset that embraces challenges, small and big.
“It’s also the ability to act in the face of adversity. It’s an approach to life that is open to trying new things and new experiences and going beyond what we think might be our limits—whether physical, mental, or emotional. It’s also about looking for practical solutions and ways to move forward, to build up fortitude and resilience,” Pantzar wrote.
While she cultivated her inner sisu by embracing Finnish customs such as winter swimming in open waters — aka a personal Levy bête noire — Pantzar is convinced one needn’t live in a Nordic milieu to cultivate sisu.
“I think anyone anywhere can tap into their own form of sisu. That means not always choosing the easy way out — for example, getting some exercise by housecleaning or raking leaves rather than outsourcing those tasks. Maintaining a connection to nature in daily life, whether by heading to a beach or forest for a walk or strolling in a park, is equally important,” she wrote. “In an unstable world where there are so many issues to be concerned about ranging from climate change to political and financial instability, tapping into a sisu mind-set can offer a way forward of finding and building up inner strength and resilience that helps you deal with the challenges that life can throw at you.”
After finishing The Finnish Way (see what I did there?), I watched a documentary film titled SISU about a cycling team from a small town in Maine that competed in the 1,358-kilometer (837-mile), 48-hour race around Iceland’s legendary ring road. The 10-person TruStrengthCycling Team of five women and five men, some of them middle-aged and decidedly not competitive athletes, train together and prepare for six months, pushing themselves out of the comfort zones and tackling insane logistical nightmares even before heading to the 2018 WOW Cyclothon race around the perimeter of Iceland. It’s a story of personal and collective sisu, even if the participants never discuss the Finnish concept directly.
They live it. And that’s the point.
For the TruStrengthCycling team, harnessing their sisu is also a visceral practice of mindfulness. The SISU documentary is only an hour long. I highly recommend it.
I am glad I’m getting ahead of the sisu juggernaut that is, apparently, on the horizon courtesy of a new theatrical film also titled SISU, which I discovered while doing a quick search for “sisu” on Twitter late one night.
First of all, yikes. According to the SISU trailer, the dark comedy (maybe?) dropping at the end of April from the studio that brought the world John Wick, promises its Finnish World War II-era hero will deliver “glorious carnage” and “the most fun you can have watching Nazis get destroyed.”
That’s … not quite my understanding of the fulsom Finnish meaning of sisu.
The spirit of sisu might be better located with the Levy family patriarch languishing in the waters of a frozen lake in the Laplandish hinterlands rather than Jorma Tommila and his pet poodle annihilating Nazis in a blizzard.
Which brings me back to harnessing one’s sisu with our hesitant tourist, Eugene.
By the end of the Finland episode of The Reluctant Traveler, Levy (and his clever, cajoling producers) find a way to gt him into an icy Lapland lake for a dip. Rather than demure the initial bathing invitation (as he does earlier in the episode) and avoid the experience of which he is afraid, the team channels its collective sisu into finding a solution to the problem in the form of a Red Cross-red flotation suit that allows Levy to get in the freezing Arctic lake for a float without getting wet (or hypothermia).
It’s brilliant. It’s hilarious. And it’s the very essence of sisu.
Video Source: AppleTv via Facebook
My “kickasspirational” friend David is fond of saying that we all should do at least one thing every day that scares us. Maybe it’s not skinny-dipping in a frozen lake for you, but there’s something for which you can muster your sisu reserves and conquer, confront, integrate or embrace.
Little things. Big things.
We all have some things that scare us and are an opportunity to harness our inner sisu and learn how much stronger we are than we think we might be.
Get out there!
BITS AND BOBS
A while back, I spent a couple of hours being interviewed by the wonderful Helena de Groot (she of Paris Review podcast and Poetry Off the Shelf podcast fame) about the work of Mary Oliver and its (to me) spiritual import for an audio documentary about the late, great poet. I’m delighted to share that Precious and Wild: A Celebration of Mary Oliver will drop on April 11 from the fine folks at Pushkin Industries.
The audio documentary, narrated by Sophia Bush Hughes and also featuring the likes of Rainn Wilson, Ross Gay, Carmen Maria Machado, Claire Bidwell Smith, Busy Phillips, Susan Cain, and a few of Oliver’s students from Bennington College is being released as an audiobook and is available for pre-order right now. Here’s a LINK.
Here are a few lines from Oliver’s poem “Starlings in Winter” from her 2006 collection Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, that capture, I believe, something of the heart of sisu:
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us, even in the leafless winter, even in the ashy city. I am thinking now of grief, and of getting past it; I feel my boots trying to leave the ground, I feel my heart pumping hard. I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.
Be brave and kind, curious and courageous. Go find your sisu, harness it, and see where it takes you this week.
Please don’t forget, dearhearts, that you haven’t met yet everyone you will love and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Much love from me,
Loved all of this!
Fascinating and inspiring about sisu, Cathleen. We loved people in Helsinki and need to get up north like in your story. Robert