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Joanna Nylund Lives By the Concept of Sisu – This is Why She Wrote a Book About It

Joanna Nylund Lives By the Concept of Sisu – This is Why She Wrote a Book About It
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Joanna Nylund is the author of ‘Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage,’ a testament of her passion. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Joanna Nylund was four years old when she ventured onto the ice for the first time. As she tentatively traversed the unfamiliar terrain in her ice-skates, Nylund recalled in an interview with Finland Today, her mother cheering from the sidelines, shouting “Rohkeasti vaan!”; an inspiring Finnish expression, meaning: “Boldly now!” The expression stuck with Nylund in the intervening years and perfectly encapsulates her daring decision to tackle a centuries-old cultural construct in her latest book, Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage.

Sisu has long been prized as a personal quality in Finland. “It’s such a powerful concept. It conveys an action mindset and speaks right into our hardships and difficulties,” she said.

It was Nylund’s own experiences, having witnessed her brother’s remarkable resolve in the face of a debilitating disease, that fueled her fascination with the construct. “It’s hard for me to imagine a greater challenge than living with long-term illness.”

Part historical account, part social commentary and part self-help guide, the final product is a testament to Nylund’s passion: “I interviewed academics, explorers, foreigners, and so-called ‘regular’ people to find out more about how science views sisu, how you apply it when dangling off a cliff in the Antarctic, but also—perhaps most interestingly—how people use it in their everyday lives, how it informs their choices and thereby our society,” Nylund said.

While sisu has no exact equivalent in the English language, the term is linked to concepts such as tenacity, resilience, determination and even “guts.” Perhaps most importantly, according to Nylund, is that sisu is not simply about positivity: “It’s feeling pretty shaky or doubtful about your prospects of success but doing it anyway. It’s gritting your teeth and setting your face against the wind and just resolving not to give up.”

Given such a definition, it is not surprising that well-known Finns like former President Martti Ahtisaari and Olympian Paavo Nurmi appear in Nylund’s work. As the Helsinki-based author strives to emphasize, however, every individual has the capacity to cultivate sisu. For Nylund, her own “sisu moment” was prompted by a desire to improve her physical well-being: “It was a personal triumph for me when I got to the point of just deciding that ‘okay, if I’m not ill, I’m going to work out.’”

“It’s such a powerful concept. It conveys an action mindset and speaks right into our hardships and difficulties.”

Author Joanna Nylund speaking about "sisu."

Nylund’s own experiences of dealing with her brother’s disease fueled her passion to the concept of ‘sisu.’ Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

According to Nylund, sisu is, to some extent, bound up with discomfort. While it may seem that modern-day society has moved in the opposite direction, at least insofar as marketing product upon a product that serves only to alleviate discomfort, Nylund is adamant that sisu is still applicable. “Sisu is still a force to be reckoned with at both the individual and the collective level. Conducting your life with integrity and backbone, standing up for the marginalized, would be a fantastic conduit for sisu today.”

Nylund said that there is a much greater obstacle than modern-day conveniences: “A real danger these days, when it comes to cultivating sisu, is that people are becoming estranged from themselves through constant distractions. If you never take the time to check in with yourself, allowing yourself to think and feel uncomfortable things, you are unlikely to be able to excavate that inner strength when you most need it.” 

‘Sisu’ is also a tool for happiness. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Sisu is, of course, not the only Nordic construct that has become popular in recent years, leading one to wonder whether perhaps Scandinavia does hold the secret to happiness. According to Nylund, “the ‘secret’ . . . is our focus on the common good . . . . Nobody said we were perfect. Nevertheless, a stable country is a happy country. We are standing on the shoulders of giants here: the post-war generation that literally rebuilt our nation with their bare hands. They, and their sisu, is the reason we are in such a good place today.”

Certainly, Nylund seems to be in a good place today. As well as sharing her fascination with sisu, the curious creative has begun exploring her passion for photography.

“It’s a great combination to be working with, to be honest—when I grow a little weary of words I turn to images and vice versa.” Nylund is also about to embark on her second book, hoping just like Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage that “it will impact people’s lives for the better.”

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About The Author

Kathleen Cusack

Kathleen Cusack is an Australian expat, coming to grips with the Finnish language and its enthusiastic use of vowels. She is passionate about history, tea and the Sydney Swans.

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