Drawing from Deep Inner Fortitude: The Finnish Power of Sisu in the Pandemic

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I am very excited and delighted to present my interview with Emilia Elisabet Lahti, the Finnish wonder woman, who shared her experiences on sisu. Ms. Lahti is a doctoral candidate in Aalto University in Finland and conducts research on sisu. She received her master’s degree in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania where she studied under very well -known researchers in positive psychology, Drs. Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth. Dr. Seligman is referred to as the father of positive psychology when he challenged psychologists to study factors which contribute to leading flourishing and happy lives. Psychology, traditionally, focused on  “disease model” or study of strategies to alleviate clinical symptoms.

Ms. Lahti is a Renaissance woman of many talents. She is a powerful advocate in creating spaces of courage to speak about the perils and lethal dangers of domestic violence and need to end intimate partner violence. She is also a coach, consultant, author, researcher, world -wide traveler and an ultramarathon runner. Ms. Lahti’s book, “Gentle Power”,  published by Sounds True is going to be available in winter 2022/2023. I came across Ms. Lahti’s research on sisu in a journal article. I was struck by the concept of sisu, discussed in Finnish culture, especially as this concept is very relevant in modern times as we collectively enter the third year of the pandemic. 

This post consists of my interview with Ms. Lahti about sisu. She is very open about discussing her experiences of overcoming domestic violence and how this taught her about sisu. She is very intelligent, articulate, knowledgeable, compassionate, enthusiastic about her field of study and generously shared her wisdom. It was a pleasure to chat with her and I felt energized after the interview. She embodies the great reserve of resiliency that is in human beings: mind, body and spirit. She is truly an incredible woman and it was an honor to interview her. After this interview, I reflected on how I can draw upon my sisu. Hope this post inspires readers to draw on sisu reserves.

 

INTERVIEW WITH MS. LAHTI : EMBODIED FORTITUDE OR SISU

AG (Anindita Ganguly): Thank you so much for the interview. I am very excited to learn about sisu.  First, please tell me about yourself.

EL (Emilia Lahti): I have a nomadic soul and have lived in different parts of the world. I am a curious explorer of life and the human phenomenon. Throughout the unfolding experience of life, we, as human beings, experience a variety of events ranging from times of celebration and accomplishment to darkness and challenge. Just like joy, each and every human being shares the common experience of pain. In every experience there can be a diamond hidden and I believe that through self-care, having support for our healing, and reaching the depth of our pain by transforming our pain ultimately into renewed levels of understanding knowledge, we can access them. This is a process which  we can’t push. We can’t hurry healing.

AG: What exactly is sisu?

EL: It is “embodied fortitude” that is invoked by adverse events, which means it is not only mental but is like another power circuit, more visceral than cognitive, that we access when we have reached the end of our preconceived capacities. It is a subjective experience as every human’s limit for what requires sisu is personal and influenced by their past experiences, coping strategies they have at their disposal, and even how we take care of ourselves. I often say that through self-care we charge up our sisu which can be used during stormy days. It is being “naked in the face of intense struggle”. Sisu is triggered differently in various individuals. What may be perceived as “adverse” to one person, may not be seen as “adverse” by another person. For example, when I started ultramarathon running, running just a few kilometers would be demanding but as I progressed, I moved this line further. Later in training I could with very modest effort run a 15 K in the morning and do another 10 K in the evening. Ultimately, I was running several days of 50 KM consecutively when I ran and cycled 2400 km across New Zealand in 2018 for my campaign called, Sisu Not Silence, highlighting the strength and grace of overcomers of domestic violence.

AG: Sisu is so relevant in the world as we collectively enter our third year of the pandemic, exhausted and worn out.

EL: Yes. Sisu is triggered when we feel like “we just cannot handle anything anymore”. I feel we are right now in the middle of a collective worldwide empirical experience of sisu. Sisu is the zone we step into when we feel like we cannot endure anymore. It is the extra reserve of energy, like an extra tank of fuel, that we switch to when we feel that all perseverance and endurance has perished. It is like the rocket fuel that helps a space shuttle break through the earth’s atmosphere. It is an intense, powerful energy… warrior energy. It is not only thought or emotion based. It seems to be a kind of visceral energy originating from the gut, core of the body and being.

AG: Researchers are finding out about the importance of the gut. The gut-brain connection is currently investigated, demonstrating the connections among stress, mood, digestive system, and health.

EL: Sisu is referred to “embodied fortitude” triggered by adversity. It is anchored deep within every human being and it is different from some cognitive qualities because of this. Grit for example, the sister of sisu that has been beautifully pioneered as a research concept by professor Angela Duckworth. Grit is different from sisu.  While grit includes  passion and perseverance for long-term goals, sisu is something that we tap into a moment, and don’t need to feel a passion for a long-term goal. Sometimes we simply do what we must do to keep life and our dreams going.

AG: How did you discover that you want to study sisu?

EL: I will share a personal experience that taught me about sisu. Twelve years ago when I lived in New York city, I left a relationship that was extremely abusive. I endured a year and a half of gaslighting, demeaning comments that tore my self-worth apart, and ultimately, physical violence before I found my way back to my core and my sisu. After this traumatic experience, when I began a long journey to healing, I developed a passion to understand how on Earth human beings overcome all kinds of significant adversity. This personal journey of healing and growth has revealed me so much knowledge about myself, interpersonal relationships, as well as the importance of not being blind to power dynamics in everyday life.

AG: That is an incredibly tragic thing and sadly too common. Victims of domestic violence experience such deep wounding on a physical, emotional, cognitive (belief systems) and spiritual level. Interpersonal violence (IPV) is one of the most pervasive yet under-recognized human rights issues in the world. It affects hundreds of millions of individuals across the globe each year from every social class, income group, race, and culture. Every year, at least 270 million children too are exposed to violence in their homes. According to the National Coalition against Domestic Violence, 1 out 5 women and 1 out of 40 men experience rape or attempted rape within their lifetimes. Additionally, 1 out 2 female murder victims and 1 out of 13 male murder victims are killed by their intimate partners. 

EL: The danger is very serious and in the pandemic time, intimate partner violence has been shown to escalate and may be at higher rates with additional stressors of economic challenges, limited freedom, fear and tension over future that then finds its outlet on the family members. Emotional injuries are just as painful as physical injuries. The perpetrator engages in dynamics where you feel completely unworthy, powerless and start believing you did something wrong to deserve the abuse. I often say that an absurd reaction to an absurd behavior is a normal reaction. You might slowly begin to reason you must have done something really bad, there has to be a logic to this, or why would a loved one hurt you repeatedly.

AG: Self-worth is shattered.

EL: Yes. A few years ago a speaker at an event on domestic violence and I challenged the narrative that victims of domestic violence are “weak” and “damaged”. I pointed to the resiliency of human beings. I discussed Dr. Richard G. Tedeschi’s research on posttraumatic growth. Within a trauma framework, these experiences are sometimes so intense that after that there is ‘life pre-trauma’ and ‘life post trauma”. What Tedeschi and his colleagues found is that trauma doesn’t only break us (post-traumatic stress and so on), but humans sometimes grow and change in unpresented ways as a result of these challenges. As I was talking about my experiences at the conferences, I remembered the perpetrator, my then boyfriend saying, “First of all no one cares and secondly, no one would believe you.”

As I spoke to the audience of about a hundred people, who actually were there for my Sisu Not Silence fundraiser, I thought “The biggest tragedy of the abuse was that I believed him. That was the trap. People do care, they do listen, and this audience and the other thousands who participated globally over the process is just one proof.” I had developed the Sisu Not Silence movement to support building cultures of compassion and nonviolence, and to promote and idea of zero tolerance to abuse of any kind.  There are circumstances in life where one, while seemingly free to anyone looking from outside, is in fact held emotionally captive by the diminishing words and actions of another. This can be a toxic co-worker, parent, a school mate, a partner, and the like. The first steps to choose courage over silence, as the silence is one big thing that the perpetrators power is based on. When in a abusive relationship, one must of course be careful and seek help too as there can be real dangers when challenging the perpetrator.

AG: Your escape from this domestic violent relationship demonstrated sisu. 

EL: Well, I tapped into sisu afterwards especially in my healing that in itself has been a long road. Imagine just the courage it takes to love again after something like that, you know? I stole my diamonds from this dark and ultimately used the challenging experience to reach greater heights, and to build a lighthouse of sisu for others too. I believe that similarly as we come out of the pandemic, we will align with our sisu and use the collective tragedy for growth. But we need each other, and we need to stick together for that. Regardless of differences in opinion and so on. Life is so precious and unrelenting in its power, but it is very fragile too.

AG: Are there negative aspects of sisu?

EL: Yes, sisu is an intense energy. For example, once the space shuttle that I used as an example earlier, pierces through the earth’s atmosphere, the space shuttle must let go of the rocket fuel because then it is too explosive for long-term use. Having to (or choosing to) maintain sisu for extended periods may turn into stubbornness and make you so rigid that you’ll break. The higher expression of sisu is what I call gentle power,. This is leading life with love and suppleness, while having your self-worth in place anf having the firmness to set boundaries. You are not entangled in thinking that using force over others is healthy power and neither is your gentleness secretly based on patterns of people-pleasing or codependency. Gentle power is us in a state of dynamic balance with ourselves and others.

AG: How did this concept of sisu develop in Finland?

EL: Finland is a tiny country whose history is influenced by it being located between Sweden and Russia, countries with very different ideologies. Finnish people have had to fight to maintain independence and their culture, language, and identity. The best example is the Winter War when the Soviet Union wanted to acquire land from Finland for defense strategy. The Finnish leadership refused. As the world watched, Finland, the puny underdog defended itself against the mammoth-sized Red Army, miraculously endured and maintained sovereignty.

AG: Wow. Thank you for the interview. I see such resiliency in your soul. I hope you spread your research findings on sisu. Your words are very powerful.

EL: It was an honor to share this moment with you. May you always have courage and compassion running in your veins, and the power of love in your heart. I always say that while sisu is stunning, gentleness is greatness.

 

ADDENDUM:

I have added some more information on topics that E. E. Lahti discussed.

The first war between the Soviet Union and Finland, known as the Winter War, started in November 1939 and ended in March 1940. The Soviet Union demanded certain areas of Finland for defense strategy and security purposes, but Finland refused. The Soviet army invaded with advanced military technology, including aircraft and tanks, but, made little gain as the Finnish army fought valiantly against the Soviet Army for two months sometimes in extreme cold weather (–43 °C (–45.4 °F). Despite the Soviet army’s military might, the army sustained heavy losses and the war ended with the Moscow Peace Treaty. Finland maintained its sovereignty and gained international fame on the world stage.

Richard G. Tedeschi has conducted extensive research on posttraumatic growth. Dr. Tedeschi (2020) wrote an article, “Growth after Trauma”   in the Harvard Business Review. He discussed that growth from trauma occurs when there is education of how the trauma impacted you, finding effective tools for managing emotions so you can learn effectively, disclosure or talking about trauma and narrative development, which, is developing a meaningful understanding of pre-trauma life and post trauma life. He writes that some of the gains in posttraumatic growth include greater appreciation of life, improved relationships, spiritual growth, and engaging in service- oriented work to help others.

I AM WAITING EAGERLY FOR MS. LAHTI’s BOOK, GENTLE POWER.

PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS A NOT A THERAPY SITE. PLEASE CONTACT MEDICAL , MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SHELTER  RESOURCES AS NEEDED.

Drawing from Deep Inner Fortitude: The Finnish Power of Sisu in the Pandemic

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