In our society as it exists today, there is often an unhealthy idealization and hero worship that takes place when we see others accomplishing and overcoming difficult things. We make demigods of those whom we see as being above ourselves and we seek to associate ourselves with those we see as above the norm.
The underdog team winning the championship.
The woman with naught but a high school diploma and who somehow manages to build a fortune 500 company from the ground up.
The actor who lived in a van on the beach for years until finally getting that big break and becoming the A-lister.
The once personal assistant who builds a brand bigger than the one she once assisted.
The soldier who gets shot a dozen times doing what seems impossible in battle, walking to the medevac, and somehow surviving.
The man, woman, boy, or girl who marches to the beat of their own drum whatever way that drum beats.
The amputee who learned to walk and run again and the utterly devoted wife by his side.
We see these people as something above ourselves. Something separate. Something stronger, more resilient, just more of whatever it is we admire. Whatever they have, it is more than what we have and we are certain of it.
Except that they don’t actually have anything beyond what we ourselves are capable of having. They’re people like us. Ordinary people.
Against all odds.
Most of those demigods society worships have done something or other to survive or accomplish something despite all odds being against their success, whether those odds were for getting the big break in the hit flick or surviving when all thought they would perish. So what makes them so different than the average human that they are deemed worthy of our adoration? Is it just that they did what seemed impossible?
I would argue that it is not the overcoming that we admire so deeply. There’s something more. But what?
Sisu is a philosophical ideal and concept that is hundreds of years old and borne in Finland from the idea that one can go far beyond the one’s own limitations to survive against all odds and that encompasses a host of character and personality traits that psychologically when found together create the kind of person who survives when there is no logical or rational reason for survival or success:
“Stoic Determination: a philosophy of personal ethics informed by a system of logic and its views on the natural world wherein the path to happiness is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world, and treating others fairly and justly.
“Tenacity: the quality of being determined to do something in spite of difficulties and hurdles.
“Grit: a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state that promotes the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie on the path to accomplishment and serves as a driving force in achievement realization.
“Courage: the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. Physical courage is bravery in the face of physical pain, hardship, death or threat of death, while moral courage is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, discouragement, or personal loss.
“Resilience: the ability to successfully cope with a crisis and to return to pre-crisis status quickly by people who develop psychological and behavioral capabilities that allow them to remain calm during a crisis and to move on from the incident without long-term negative consequences.
“Hardiness: a personality structure comprising the three related general dispositions of commitment, control, and challenge that functions as a resistance resource in encounters with stressful conditions. Commitment is the tendency to involve oneself in activities in life and the tendency to having a genuine interest in and curiosity about the surrounding world (activities, things, other people). Control is the tendency to believe and act as if one can influence the events taking place around oneself through one’s own efforts. Challenge is the belief that change, rather than stability, is the normal mode of life and constitutes motivating opportunities for personal growth rather than threats to security.
I like these words, the personality traits, and what they imply.
I like what they stand for in the positive type of strength that doesn’t seek to have power or control over others.
I like the feeling I get when I think about them.
And I like to think that I might have a little sisu in my bones and perhaps that is why I’ve been so able to survive when every odd has been stacked against me for so long.
It is easy to look at someone else who has overcome a great deal and think they have something incredible about them that made it possible but it is not easy to consider that the only thing they have that we don’t is a stubborn unwillingness to stop fighting or moving forward. Mark my words carefully, I’m not preaching that these so-called demigods have what we should strive for in fame and fortune. Success in life can look like a great many things but if your only measures for success are fortune and fame, you will always be able to find an excuse to explain how you’re the victim of some circumstance that kept you from succeeding.
What I am talking about, however, is the success that comes from overcoming what life has thrown at you to continue to live, to find love and joy, to be fulfilled, and to know your value despite whatever has been thrown against you and what obstacles are blocking your pathway.
Walking away from a toxic or abusive relationship?
Surviving medical hardship?
Keeping food on the table and bills paid when there seems no way to do so?
Keeping faith and hope alive when there seems to be no reason to believe?
Finding the strength to forgive those who have wronged you?
Stepping out in faith to do what you feel called to when no one else can see the path laid before you?
How do you know if you’ve got the sisu?
Picture this scene I have written about before in Resilience (originally published over a year ago):
You are holding a cup of coffee when someone walking by bumps into you, making you spill your coffee everywhere.
Why did you spill the coffee?
“Well because someone bumped into me, of course!”
You spilled the coffee because there was coffee in your cup.
Had there been tea in the cup, you would have spilled tea.
Whatever is inside the cup is what will spill out.
Ergo, when life comes along and shakes you, which WILL happen, whatever is inside you will come out.
It’s easy to fake it, until you get rattled.
So we have to ask ourselves, “What’s in my cup?”
When life gets tough, what spills over?
Joy, gratefulness, peace, and humility?
Or anger, bitterness, harsh words, and reactions?
This analogy is not mine and try as I might I could not discover the original author.
Is your cup filled with the character traits that embody sisu and that will enable you to survive despite a deck stacked against you?
Or are you filled with the kind of traits that enable you to find a reasonable excuse to give up?
I think my cup is filled with sisu…
And I know where to go to fill that cup once more when I forget what sisu tastes like or my cup runs low.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
“Courage.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Jan. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courage.
“Grit (Personality Trait).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Dec. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grit_(personality_trait).
“Hardiness (Psychological).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 June 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardiness_(psychological).
“Psychological Resilience.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_resilience.
“Stoicism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Jan. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism.
“Tenacity.” Impartial – Meaning, Definition, Usage of Impartial, 11 May 2009, http://www.univsource.com/words/tenacity-noun.htm.