We Have Nothing Worse Than Death To Fear

What the Finnish word ‘sisu’ has meant, and what it means to me.

Image: Crystal R. Williams

In March of 2016, a cartoon by New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress began appearing on my social media feed with increasing frequency. It was a black-and-white sketch of a man and a woman walking down a city street with the caption, “My desire to stay informed is currently at odds with my desire to stay sane.” Essayist Janna Malamud Smith once wrote that a work becomes a classic in proportion to how many people find within it something intimately necessary. The same can be said for viral Internet sensations. After November 8th, the cartoon experienced an unsurprising renaissance. When I heard Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, I awaited its third resurgence. Staying simultaneously informed and operative will be, for the foreseeable future, a precarious balancing act. I hereby present the antidote to this dilemma. It is called sisu.

Sisu is a Finnish word that carries an almost mystical ethos in my hometown, Houghton, Michigan. Finnish-American families, whose ancestors migrated to the region for work during the 1800s copper boom, dominate the area. Sisu is an un-translatable tenacity believed to be implanted in our genetic code. There is a stark distinction, of course, between being Finnish-American and being Finnish. My great-grandparents were first-generation immigrants and my grandmother’s DNA can be traced back to Finland’s indigenous Sami population, but at eighty-five she only made it to the motherland last year. I identify strongly with my heritage, but I am Finnish-American. Not Finnish. My definition of sisu is colored with an expected level of Americanization.

I lean on Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to define sisu. I think of Peter Walsh reflecting on how Clarissa lives with an unshakable awareness that we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship, and that the whole thing is a bad joke, but still feels obligated to mitigate the suffering of her fellow prisoners. Sisu means that, even in the face of probable Armageddon, you get out of bed and buy the fucking flowers yourself if that’s what needs doing. It’s a no-frills tenacity, resolve without any expectation of triumph.

In Finland, however, sisu is more complicated. Sisu is stained with historical context it lacks in the United States. I talked to Jari Katajamäki, a digital marketing specialist living in the Finnish city of Tampere, about his sentiments on the word as a modern Finnish citizen.

“Sisu is not in every day language anymore,” he said, “So when someone talks about sisu nowadays, we Finns immediately think about the Winter War. And, in that sense, I see sisu as a means of propaganda.”

In upper Michigan, the Winter War, fought from 1939 to 1940, feels unreal. It’s viewed as an almost mythical battle, Finland the slingshot-wielding peasant facing off against the insurmountable giant of the Soviet Union. But it was morally complicated and only partially victorious. When Finland refused to cede land to the U.S.S.R, the Soviet Union withdrew from a non-aggression pact and retaliated. Finland won, but the victory was short lived — the U.S.S.R continued military aggression in what is now known as the Continuation War. Here, things get ethically questionable — Finland welcomed assistance from Nazi Germany in the fight to preserve their homeland.

Sisu was used as propaganda. Some soldiers wore patches on their shoulders reading “sisu” and its resurgence in usage popularized the word in English for the first time. Sisu came to signify overwrought Finnish pride more so than serene resolution. Personally, I do not have a problem with sisu having been used in this fashion, given the circumstances. We are obligated to fight against the Joseph Stalins of the world and propaganda — however much it waters down intricacies — can breed vital enthusiasm. When a world power roughly 66 times your size threatens your autonomy, extreme patriotism becomes an asset. But propaganda never comes without consequence. Fervor spurred by the unexamined consumption of language can just as easily be steered in a regressive direction as a progressive one. In modern Finland, sisu is now associated with unsavory knee-jerk nationalism.

“Today,” Katajamäki told me, “Sisu is a word that seems to be used only by racists . . . . trying to convince us to close our borders and send all the immigrants back home.”

He then e-mailed me a link to Soumen Sisu, a Finnish political organization that opposes immigration and multi-nationalism and is infamous for publishing cartoons featuring images of the prophet Muhammad.

It pained me to see sisu used in this fashion, but Katajamäki, assured me many Finns still have a personal, largely apolitical, connection to the term. While the word is not widely used in modern Finland, it remains widely felt.

“[Finns] have always been close with nature and lived in an environment that hasn’t been the easiest to survive in,” he said, “And here lies the essence of sisu: the surrounding nature lives in our inner nature. It lives in what every Finn gets from his/her mother’s milk. Sisu gives us the strength and willpower to tame the nature — both the surrounding and inner nature.”

This is far more akin to my definition of the term, lacking patriotism’s self-congratulatory smugness. When used as propaganda, sisu was seen as a means to overcome difficulty. Overcoming, however, was never so much the point. It is the endurance that matters — the gall to survive the inhospitable.

This subdued brand of sisu became important for Finns in the aftermath of the Winter War. In an attempt to avoid further aggression, Finland adopted a stance of neutrality toward the Soviet Union. It was a tense time as Finland navigated sharing a heavily disputed border with the nation widely considered the greatest threat to world stability. In 1952, a Finnish newspaper reporter described the new Finnish currency as “dollar type,” referring purely to the bill’s cosmetic appearance. An editor vetoed the phrase on the grounds such diction was antagonistic to the U.S.S.R. In America, sentiments towards Finland soured. The term “Finlandizaton” was coined, referring to the process of passively adhering to Soviet interests. Finland was now synonymous with kowtowing to the U.S.S.R rather than resisting it.

During the Winter War, Time magazine helped popularize the term sisu in the United States. In a 1943 article, they defined sisu in a fashion that would become more apt in the ’50s, given widespread Cold War-inspired fear. The article defined sisu as a stoic courage, the ability to march forward without any illusions about the potential of imminent disaster. The writer notes, “The Finns are not happy. But sisu enables them to say, ‘We have nothing worse than death to fear.’”

In Alice Munro’s “The Love of a Good Woman,” the protagonist recalls a dream she had as a young girl in which she walked in on her father suckling the breast of an oddly dressed woman in his office. When she tries to tell her mother about the incident, she does not know the word for breast. She describes it as an ice cream cone, morphing the unknown flesh into something familiar. “A biscuit-colored cone,” she recalls, “with its mound of vanilla ice cream squashed against the woman’s chest.” To me, an atheist, this is how we think of God. In comparison to the cosmos, we are very young; we do not yet understand reality. To call what drives creation God is to call a tit an ice cream cone — a child’s vision, grappling with mystery through palatable terms.

This brand of uncertainty provides me with inordinate comfort. It does not make me fear death more, but less. This mentality stems from my Finnish-American upbringing. My grandmother, who remains very much alive, had her own tombstone erected about ten years ago. Now well into her eighties, she has never expressed any particular fear of mortality. We have nothing worse than death to fear, I imagine her thinking, and for all we know it won’t be that bad.

To tame nature is to live despite nature. This ability to stare down mortality is sisu. It’s knowing, as Clarissa knew, that death ends completely, but not giving a shit, because buying the flowers remains your priority.

After hearing the news about the Paris Agreement, I went to the gym. I watched the ensuing press conference on the screen of the elliptical machine, cringing as Sean Spicer dodged question after question regarding whether the president believes in climate change. I was born in the eighties, so global warming has always been part of my reality. I have never known an earth that was not dying. My lifelong fear of Armageddon is mounting.

I lean on sisu to endure. I am not happy, but I have nothing worse than death to fear.

Erin Wisti is a freelance writer and editor living Los Angeles. Her essays have previously appeared in NPR’s The Salt, Ravishly, The Toast, Ampersand Review, and other places.