I Grew Up Knowing Grit as Sisu

I Grew Up Knowing Grit As Sisu

It became my mantra.

Image: Pixabay

What Angela Duckworth calls “grit”, I grew up knowing as sisu. Both words describe a combination of passion and perseverance. There isn’t any exact English translation for sisu, though. It describes a Finnish archetype of rejecting defeat and embracing change. It’s doing whatever it takes to get the job done, even if it seems obsessive or slightly nuts.

My grandfather introduced me to sisu early. His rough exterior and grumbling mannerisms made him a lovable caricature of a member of the Greatest Generation growing irascible with age. But his lessons were steadfast and consistent. All problems could be solved with sisu. Fall off a bike, sisu. Not make the baseball team, sisu. Turned down for a date, sisu. With each setback or defeat, he’d send us back into battle to dig deep and find the drive to overcome any troublesome or temporary obstacle. And then double the effort.

He was my favorite source for advice. He might get in a few words about how things were invariably more difficult in his day, but I’d appeal to his patriarchal pride. To my family, he was the go-to guy for how to handle the unexpected jabs life throws. Throughout the years, he never strayed off message, never wavered. Sisu. Maybe it would come wrapped in a cliché or two. Sometimes a metaphor. Still no one missed the message. Sisu.

I broke my leg my first year in college. Getting across a campus buried in snow would be an easy excuse for my parents to understand why I needed a semester (or two) off. I convinced them of the impossibility of getting to lectures. I added in all the right dramatic details, never failing to mention sweat from maneuvering a wheelchair through hellish Arctic conditions or the impracticality of catching a bus. When I heard my grandfather learned of my situation, I practiced how I’d casually refute the impending sisu-laden lecture. But the man was unstoppable.

Sisu, Jeremy, you can’t quit. The only constant in life is change and dealing with that fact builds character,” he told me. I caved to cliches. My rehearsals failed me. His voice was as effective over the phone as in person and he told what I knew was coming (and needed to hear).

I made it to every class that semester, through flurries and ice storms and crowded buses. I discovered a profound respect for the US Post Office’s unofficial motto: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night…” it starts. Herodotus’ phrasing is poetry. Confronting the inescapable twists or turns in life never gets easier. A steady philosophy, and one so culturally, so patriotically ingrained, empowered me to do the impossible.

Now I had a unique way to rationalize waking up three hours before a 7 am lecture. And to bring sweat-free clothes to change into when I got there. And to find a coffee shop with a ramp after wheeling through downtown Ann Arbor muttering “Sisu, sisu”.

Every time I doubted myself, felt those “Was it worth it?” moments, I heard his voice remind me of my national duty to sisu. To the rest of the world it appeared I had finally lost it. But lunatic behavior turns quirky when described by an untranslatable word. (See schadenfruede, tsundoku , prozvonit and my favorite: backpfeifengesicht.)

My grandfather died last month. Our family built on his foundations collapsed. The man who led us so fearlessly through calamity and catastrophe wouldn’t be there this time.

Sisu, Jeremy. Things hadn’t gone the way we planned, but we rallied. We each found within ourselves that excuse to go just a little crazy. We double downed on sisu. We were all in. Somehow we dealt with those unimaginably hard times.

Now when I look back I can appreciate that life is a series of zig-zags and course corrections. It never stops or slows down just enough to take a breath , pause, much less do any planning. It’s fragile and unpredictable that way. My ritual of acting (a little) irrational gets me through. My grandfather’s advice, his determination and passion to tackle challenges are his legacy.

JJ Hill is a software engineer (of sorts) in Phoenix, AZ where his latest accomplishments include surviving the summer and an election season simultaneously.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.