Sisu to You

January 11, 2019 by Gregg DeMey

My daughter gave me a book for Christmas titled, The Finnish Way by American-Finnish author Katja Pantzar. As far as I know there are no Finn ancestors on any obscure branches of the DeMey family tree. None of us have ever traveled to Helsinki nor any other part of Finland.

What drew my daughter’s eyes to this book was the subtitle, The Power of Sisu.

We first encountered the word Sisu a few years back when traveling to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to hike around the Porcupine Mountains (yes! mountains in Michigan) and the Keweenaw region, which juts northward into the frigid waters of Lake Superior. Amongst the Yoopers* there is sisu aplenty: the word frequently appears on t-shirts, coffee shop windows, and bumper stickers in that wild land of few people. Here’s a working definition from the book:

Sisu is a unique Finnish concept that connotes a special strength, persistent determination and resolve to continue, overcome and find pleasure in adversity.

It turns out that Sisu is a deeply held value that makes life in the extreme cold of northern climates not only possible, but pleasurable. Sisu is why you can find people riding around the icy hills of Marquette, Michigan, with chains on their bicycle tires. Sisu is why folks in the Northwoods keep chopping wood outdoors even when it’s below zero. Sisu is why you can’t go more than a hundred yards in Finland without bumping into a sauna. Sisu is why people jump into into lakes and oceans for a winter swim instead of just staying indoors.

Although the word sisu is not a biblical word, I find it to be a concept that is theologically right on target. The book of James refers to finding “joy whenever you face trials.” This is the heart of sisu. It’s a long, obedient walk in the same direction. It’s an acceptance of the hard realities of this life for what they are and a desire face them with a determination that will yield joy and even pleasure.

I tried to practice sisu this past week. Winter in the Midwest can be tough on it’s own, but early January is tough for me as it’s also the one year anniversary of the Mom’s death. I miss her. As a way of embracing this anniversary, my siblings and I had a little family reunion. We met up on the shores of an inland lake in a beautiful house that included a hillside hot tub with a spectacular view. It occurred to me that this was a perfect time to follow the Finnish way.

I offered a very warm invitation to my family members to join me for a very cold swim in the lake.

Turns out that others are not as intrigued by the concept of sisu as I am. Heartened by my daughter’s Christmas book and its stories of countless, swimming Finns, I plunged into the waters of a Michigan lake in January. I did my best to smile and enjoy. I resisted the temptation to run instantly to warmth of the hot tub. I swam a few strokes in a small circle and actually plunged my head beneath the surface a few more times. Miracle of miracles, it was pleasurable and I felt so alive.

Swimming is an easy thing. Practicing the spiritual art of sisu in the rough and tumble relationships of life is not an easy thing. By God’s grace, I’ll have the grit to do that, too. And to find God’s pleasure along the way. Happy New Year and a rich helping of sisu to you and yours!

Pastor Gregg

* A Yooper is a resident of the UP, or Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Yoopers casually refer to those who dwell south, or below the UP as trolls. That’s the rest of us.

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