The term, sisu, the second wind of mental toughness, comes from Finland:
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 stands for the philosophy that what must be done will be done, regardless of cost.
That term applies to the Ukrainians resisting Russian invasion. They were not and are not going to lie down and let Putin’s military roll all over them. They are fighting with every ounce of their courage to stop that aggression. In their history, many have fought with sisu to protect their fertile region.
It takes no small amount of courage to fight modern wars. Weapons like armed drones, cluster bombs, random shelling and fuel air bombs do terrible damage and cause horrendous casualties. Just the shock waves from large explosions do damage to soldiers internal organs and brains.
Yet sisu can also refer to something closer to home. Rock climbers who work without safety ropes exhibit this quality. Running marathons, bicycle racing, sailing small boats in the rough water of the ocean, many different endurance sports, all draw on the ability to confront intense pain and discomfort and keep going beyond limits and expectations.
In a different, yet persistent way, entrepreneurs often put everything on the line again and again to build their dreams. They put their time, money and energy into the task of creating a business that can turn a profit and serve their customers. My family saw that kind of energy visiting Windy Hills Orchards last Saturday. They were making cider doughnuts, apple wine. Their expansive grounds hosted food trucks, a musical band, rows of merchants selling jams, pickles, knit hats and even cotton candy and kettle corn with hundreds of people roaming the orchards and picking apples. I talked to our own farmer Zack Metzger of Laughing Earth Farms at the Troy Market Saturday morning. He told me he has invested in a commercial kitchen to sell prepared foods as well as flower bouquets along with his meats and eggs. It takes a lot of investment, vertical integration and creativity to make farms profitable today.
It may seem like sisu might be a high bar for most of us to meet to be courageous. The quality of sisu that I’m drawn to is the mental clarity, the follow through, and the consistency of its expression of courage. There is a quality of commitment to choosing the courageous path that is consistent with sisu that I think is more widely accessible.
I encounter sisu when I meditate for longer periods of time. I know my limits. I know what sensations might be dangerous to my body and what aches and pains can be endured even if they are very unpleasant. And sometimes I gather up my sisu and gently explore what I fear might be harmful to investigate its nature. Mastering the restlessness of the mind can be even more challenging, not believing the stories it spins and recognizing the true nature of restlessness as merely a transitory hindrance.
Sisu is present in some of the social justice warriors I’ve known who stand up to the systems and principalities of injustice. They are not intimidated by police in riot gear or the smell of tear gas. They stand at the microphone undeterred. They ignite the sisu energy of their fellow protesters to demand peace, justice and freedom for all. Alicia McWilliams (memorial service for her October 1 in Community Hall) was one such advocate who spoke out valiantly as a family member against the unjust prosecution of Muslims and other abuses of citizens in the “War on Terror.”
I sense for many of us sisu might be more of an aspiration rather than a reality in how we live our lives. Many of us are not driven in the single minded way that sisu demands. Yet there may be ways to access the energy of sisu through collective action.
Our ministerial intern, Jacob King, experienced how the military inspires this sisu energy in their soldiers during basic training. It is well known that soldiers more often fight and die to protect their buddies in their unit than for a lofty cause. One of the ways they bond with each other is the Basic Training Confidence Course. Common fears like heights and water (for those who don’t swim) challenge the recruits as they climb up 30 feet in the air on a rope or straddle a rope over a pond. What helps everyone endure the challenges and obstacles is mutual support and encouragement. I might not be able to climb a five story tower by myself but with my team holding my arms and supporting my legs as I climb, I can do it.
My hope and vision for our congregation is it can be a place that supports each other’s growth and development. We each have different challenges and limitations to overcome. It is our mutual support bracing each other’s feet and holding each other’s hands that help us find our inner way to the sisu that is possible for us.