Sisu is a Finnish word that defies precise translation, but the experts have mostly settled on “stoic perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds.” People with sisu are calm and unflappable in times of trouble. They're resilient but resolute. They have stamina, guts, determination, toughness, and stability.
My great grandparents were Finnish emigrants. They settled in the treeless, wide open spaces of Saskatchewan, where they began farming wheat and raising a family. I never got to meet my grandpa-great; he died when he was still a young man. I got to meet grandma-great, though. My family visited her and our other Saskatchewan relatives (she had six children) when I was seven years old. All I remember about her is that she was tiny, round-ish, and amazingly ancient (she was probably in her early 80s at the time; she lived to be 93, and was independent until the last). She had bright, twinkly blue eyes. She smiled at me and shook my hand. I was overawed and tongue-tied--I’d never seen, let alone met, anyone so old--so I drew her a picture.
I was much better at drawing (and later, writing) than I was at talking. That remains the case today.
I’ve often wondered what happened in my great-grandparent's lives that they would pack everything they owned to emigrate to another country on the other side of the world. Did they know how different Saskatchewan would be from their home? Finland is a land of thousands of clear blue lakes surrounded by pristine boreal forests of golden, shimmering birch trees and tall, dusky pines. They left its strange midnight sun, reindeer, and cloudberries for the vast Canadian prairies, desiccating summer heat and massive thunderstorms, snow-clotted, sub-zero winters, and wheat for as far as the eye can see. They must have had enormous dreams--and the courage to match them. They had sisu.
I’ve always felt proud to have such tough, brave people as close ancestors. But it wasn’t until my doctor diagnosed me with rheumatoid disease that I discovered what sisu really means.
Having sisu in my very DNA has meant, for me, coping well with rheumatoid disease rather than the alternative.
Which is not to say it hasn’t been hard. I spent about the first 17 years with rheumatoid disease in (now) embarrassing ignorance regarding its systemic effects. The doctor who diagnosed me never told me about any other symptoms I might experience, such as fatigue. I simply thought I was always really tired because I worked hard, had extremely full, busy days, and the pain from the RD often kept me awake at night. I also understood that pain is exhausting all by itself. The other symptoms, like low-grade fevers, malaise, and brain-fog never bothered me much. But when they did, it didn't occur to me that my rheumatoid disease might be the cause.
The joint pain I frequently suffered, however, was horrific. I had never experienced anything so utterly devastating in my life, including childbirth (which I’d done naturally and without anesthesia). When the pain was what the medical profession calls “severe,” I was still able to go about my daily tasks. I worked a 10 to 12-hour day, cared for my family, and even walked the dog several times a day (up and down three flights of stairs), though I did it all a lot more slowly than usual. With the exception of my hands and feet, which were constantly in a “moderate” to “severe” roar, my RD usually attacked just one major joint at a time. The attack (the word “flare” is just too mild) could last anywhere from an hour to four days. And my version of a “severe” attack completely immobilized me.
This was my life with RD for the first decade or so after diagnosis. I coped. I remained cheerful. I knew the disease was incurable, but I didn't really know what that meant. I’ve always been a calm, unflappable (sisu!), pragmatic-but-optimistic sort of person. My RD was a real problem--often a huge one--that I couldn't resolve, but I accepted it as part of my life. I lived one day at a time and moved on as best I could.
That hasn't changed, though it’s been almost 28 years since then. My inherited dose of Finnish sisu has been a huge help as I deal with my RD from day to day. But here’s the great thing: sisu may be a gift that the Finns have in spades, but it’s actually available to anyone, no matter their ancestry. The qualities I listed in the first paragraph above--perseverance, calm in the face of chaos, resilience, and determination--may take some effort, but cultivating them is one of the best things you can do for yourself as you live with rheumatoid disease.
Sisu doesn’t mean giving up or giving in. It means accepting the problem as it is and doing everything you can to resolve it even as you remain tough, steady, and courageous. Sisu renews itself--and your spirit--every single day.
Do you have sisu? Do you have your own word for that part of yourself that helps you cope with your RD?
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