Sisu is a Finnish term that lacks a direct translation in English. It’s a package of grit, determination, and resilience, which defines the Finns’ national character.
In other words, Finns are tough f#ckers. Tough enough to fight off the Russians and the Nazis. For fun, they cross-county ski, literally across the country, in minus 40 degrees Celsius. If you don’t know what minus 40 degrees Celsius feels like, it’s snot-freezing cold. So cold, your eyelashes grow icicles. All your caloric energy goes towards warming your bladder so your piss doesn’t solidify.
Finns also enjoy beating themselves with birch leaves in boiling saunas, before jumping in freezing lakes to cool down. They’re particularly skilled at drinking vodka and shooting riffles, thank goodness or there’d be an epidemic of severed toes and lost fingers given the Finns’ penchant for combining the two.
If anyone deserves their own term for grit, it’s the Finns.
When my great great grandpa—an immigrant to the United States from Helsinki— moved with his young wife, Anna Hyvarinen Smedberg Koivu, to Thunder Bay, Anna took the train while he skied from Eveleth, Minnesota. That’s 267 kilometres.
Please, don’t make the mistake of discounting Anna’s sisu. Yes, she may have taken the train, but this is a woman who, in 1930, was a politician, columnist, and early Canadian feminist. She was a trailblazer, like many other female Finnish immigrants. While Finnish women were the first in Europe to be granted the right to vote in 1906, it wasn’t for ten more years until their sisters in Canada could participate in politics.
Yet, Anna was a force to be reckoned with. She served as a Finnish translator for C.D. Howe on his campaign for Prime Minister. Though, she later admitted, she didn’t so much as translate what he said, as spiel her own opinions to receptive crowds throughout rural Northwestern Ontario.
She once stood in front of a crowd of 300 women at a townhall in Nipigon and preached, “Ladies, forget about your washing! Do a bigger and more important washing and wash the Conservative Party out of the government!”
See? Total badass.
No doubt, Anna could shoot like the best of the Finns. Pregnant—her husband working up north at a bush camp— Anna hiked ten miles to deliver her first baby at a doctor’s office. The next day, she marched back to her cabin, newborn in her arms. All the labour made her hungry, so she shot a rabbit on her homestead’s wooded land and made stew.
Now I know where I got my sisu from. My motivation to walk from Tony & Adams, seven blocks to the McDonald’s on Cumberland Street in the middle of Thunder Bay snow storm, nothing but cheap heels and pantyhose protecting my toes. My ability to bear mosquito swarms while blueberry picking in Lappe. My courage to stand-up for causes I believe in, whether it be protesting Big Oil, Big Pharma, or walking through a drive-thru for a Big Mac in the dead cold of January.
My Finnish ancestors lit the sauna fire. It’s time to open the dampers and let it roar.
Source: Rasporich, B. (1997). Anna of Intola: A Finnish-Canada Woman with Sisu. In E. Cameron and J. Dickin (Eds.), Great Dames (pp. 184-205). Toronto Ontario: University of Toronto Press.
Photo Credit: Copyright 2016, Laura Lynn Petrick