Whittling Me Smooth
The art of woodwork captures a spirit, smoothing internal lines of yearning.
Blind Starling by Diana Sudyka/dianasudyka.com
Elisabet Lahti researched her doctoral thesis by running across New Zealand. Her subject was sisu, the Finnish concept of resilience, determination, and hidden reserves. She helped a lot of people along the way—and learned lessons worth sharing.
Let’s start with the large bear in the room. Sisu first arrived in America as a front-page headline in The New York Times in 1940 when Finland held off the Soviet army during what’s called the Winter War. Back then, sisu was hailed as the “frozen grit” that turned back the Soviet tanks. I think most of us believed that kind of sisu would not be called upon today.
Yes. None of what is happening now in Ukraine was happening when I was writing my book, so I don’t touch on it. I’m also a pacifist, and my personal preference is not to write about war. The Winter War was such a dire situation. It was 35 degrees below zero and people were fighting for their lives against terrible odds. To write about that as a case study for how to use sisu in daily life felt to me like I was not honoring what happened. But, yes. Sisu means doing what you absolutely have to do in the moment; it means digging into reserves within yourself that you didn’t know you had. The Winter War is famous because regular people were digging into reserves that most people can’t even imagine having—and yet we do. We all do. That’s what sisu is about.
But instead of glorifying sisu in the war domain, I think we should be more concerned with how we can prevent these situations by tapping into a more positive, higher octave, or higher vibration version of sisu. The shift to a sisu where the heart stays open. That’s the sisu I call “gentle power.”
Your own path to sisu—maybe pilgrimage is a better word—involved running 1,500 miles across New Zealand. I’m not sure many people imagine they have the reserves to do that.
[Laughs] Ultra running for people who don’t do it can seem out of this world. And I started from a place of not believing I could do it either. But life itself is the ultimate ultra run. We are all in this for the long run. There are certain key elements we all need: We need a good mindset, we need a good crew, we need to know the terrain. Learning about sisu from ultra running and teaching it through the metaphors turns out to be really helpful.
Speaking with you now, it’s hard to imagine that you were ever stuck in an abusive and violent relationship. Yet what led to your study of sisu and your run was an experience of extreme violence.
Yes, it was. And I am a very different person now. My run, my pilgrimage, allowed me to take myself to a place where I was able to look at myself very honestly. That extreme, which isn’t really part of my life anymore, allowed me to shed those layers of me that resulted in me being vulnerable to a relationship like that.
Let’s go back to 2010 in New York. You’re working at the Finnish Consulate General and living with someone, and …
And I didn’t see the warning signs. Then he made me believe that it was all my own fault, that I somehow deserved it because of A, B, C, D, and E. People wonder why anyone would ever stay in a situation like that, but the dynamics at play are often so messy. It’s insane. Abusers play into what can be an inherent sense of worthlessness, and as a result I was nearly killed. Instead, he was prosecuted and deported.
A week after our relationship finally ended, I had a dream: I saw myself running across this beautiful green country carrying a flag. Somehow in that dream, I knew that I was in New Zealand, where I have felt a spiritual connection for as long as I can remember. And I knew that the flag was for men and women, anyone who has endured abuse in any form, because it takes so many shapes. It’s not just the physical violence, it’s the emotional violence, which is often more atrocious because it’s under the radar. The dream stayed with me, but it never occurred to me that I would actually do something so crazy. What I did do was quit my job at the consulate. I needed to find my purpose on this planet.
My father is a car mechanic. My mother an interior designer. They are solid people but academia was not my world. But I ended up driving to the University of Pennsylvania to check out the master’s program in applied positive psychology. I wanted to see the campus, and I was wondering if I had the guts to apply. When I got there, I checked my phone for any lectures I could attend and Angela Duckworth was giving an Introduction to Positive Psychology class, and I kind of invaded the class. She was speaking about grit (which she is famous for) and it reminded me of sisu, the word I grew up with. So, after the class, I went up to Angela and introduced myself. She was so sweet. She said I was the first person she had ever met from Finland.
In the car back home, I wrote an email to Angela mentioning sisu and she wrote back something like, “Who knows, maybe you’ll end up writing your master’s thesis on sisu.” That’s exactly what happened. Meanwhile, as I was researching sisu—this courage—there was an inner voice saying, “You haven’t actually done the most courageous thing for you, which is to tell your story the way it happened.” I had almost died, and I never spoke about it.
Then I was invited to the International Positive Psychology World Congress in 2013 in Los Angeles. My friend Carin Rockind was supposed to be presenting with another positive psychology researcher, but that person canceled. So she asked me to step in. I had never given a public talk. We don’t really learn that in Finland, and I had terrible stage fright. Then she asked me to share a little bit about why I started researching sisu. So I did, and it touched people so much. There were people queuing to speak to me, and they all came to say, “Thank you!” and “My mother, my brother, or I have endured this.” I realized that I needed to continue to speak.
When I started my PhD on sisu, I asked myself how I could continue to honor this kind of intestinal fortitude. I had done a survey on sisu and published a research paper on it, but no survey could go deep enough. It’s also hard to produce an empirical scenario where you simulate sisu. You can’t put people in a burning house, for example. So I soon realized that my sisu study would be an “n of one”—a little laboratory of myself. And I was reminded of my dream where I was running across this beautiful country for nonviolence and healing.
My PhD proposal was to enact my dream, to start training and run the length of New Zealand. It became a campaign called Sisu Not Silence, with 15 public events. Each day I was to run 30 miles, and then on some evenings do a keynote for an hour, or do a men’s and women’s group that usually lasted a few hours. This went on for 50 days.
One thing I really appreciated in reading about your run was that at some point you realized you were breaking down. You could have quit. You could have damaged yourself. Instead, you got a bike for part of it.
Yes. There were lots of insights from the road, especially during days 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. But that was the most important opening. I had an epiphany where I realized just how easily we allow the external beating of the drum—the surrounding world—to become our own heart rate. I felt the enormous pressure to keep on going exactly as I had planned. But the question that the road brought up was to imagine that I magically got to the end of the 50 days. Could I look back from that vantage point and say that I had honored myself? Or that I finished but did it at all costs? Around that time, I also realized it had generally been easier for me to be hard on myself than to be kind and merciful. That was an epiphany about gentle power, about keeping my heart open to myself and to all the people I wanted to reach. What this means in practice is that we have to be open to change our plans and that way remain humble to the process we are in.
That is lovely. And your book is full of powerful observations. You write, “Power is a dirty word, so we tend to let it leak away.” What does that mean?
That sentence came from sharing this book idea with a friend who’s very much into social activism. She wondered why I had to write about power, and I realized that it triggered something in her. We’ve seen so many bad examples of power that we’d rather push it away. Some of us even make ourselves smaller and harmless so that we send a message: Don’t be afraid of me, I’m no threat. But by doing so we also deny ourselves the chance to find the extent of who we are. And if we’re not able to explore the power in us, and do so in a constructive way, someone else is going to take it.
Thinking about your definition of sisu as extraordinary perseverance that was previously untapped, how do we consciously tap into it?
I think the first step is to become aware that millions of years of successful evolution have given us this potentiality, this incredible strength both to survive and thrive. But we also have to be aware that the human mind evolved during those millions of years to notice every possible thing that could go wrong. We are programmed by evolution to remember most vividly the things that went wrong in our lives so as not to recreate the same situation or to respond better the next time it happens. It’s called the negativity bias, and what that can mean is that we forget the situations where we did well. Where we, for example, expressed sisu. So we tend to vastly underestimate our strengths.
A very simple exercise that I give to people is what I call “stories of sisu.” It’s a form of diary where you go back to moments in your life that were very challenging, those moments when you really felt you had run out of energy and you didn’t know how you would get through. And then you write about how you did get through. It could be something related to school when you were young. It might have been a divorce. It might have been the courage to fall in love again—or to rise in love again, as I like to say.
The second step is to gently track what helped you in those moments. What aids did you have? Very often there was an inspiring idea, or there was someone who saw the potential in you before you saw it in yourself. I think we could all begin to create our own magnum opus, our own philosopher’s stone, to really look at who we are by collecting these very simple stories of what works for me and for you. It’s the blueprint of Stephen or the blueprint of Elisabet. It’s how we turn lead into gold in the everyday.
That sounds like a great practice. Another line that struck me is “Bystanders are a fulcrum for change.” What does that mean?
Ah, you singled out a really important line. It’s really important because it gets to the invitation to cultivate sisu. There is obviously the sisu that exists in our own practice. But sisu also lives in the space in between us—almost a third party that is formed because of our particular dynamic. So, when I say that the bystander is the fulcrum of change, one thing it can mean has to do with the fact that we learn quickest through observing other people. In other words, my actions are not only for me. Most often there’s someone who’s witnessing what I’m doing. Practicing sisu is contagious.
Then there’s the other side that shows up, particularly in domestic violence. Ideally, you expect a person to woman up or man up: To figure things out and use sisu to pull herself out. But when you have given away your power, or it has been carved out of you, it can be extremely hard to see how you ever ended up in such a tragic situation—let alone recognize that you still have sisu. You can’t read your own label from inside the jar. So when we are our most vulnerable we need other humans to stand up for us.
It’s also a problem in terms of cultural change. I speak often about basic uprightness and benevolence, virtues that don’t really get discussed much but that hold humanity together. And because they’re not held in high regard right now, we’re crumbling. We’re less than we can be. And we feel alone with this struggle. It’s a really sticky problem because so many are suffering so much that there isn’t enough energy to go around. We see that our neighbor is suffering, but we don’t act because we hardly have enough energy for ourselves. That’s a recipe for collapse.
In the movies, there’s always a hero who frees the chained prisoners and saves the world …
[Laughs] And that’s us. That’s what I call the alchemy of gentle power. The alchemy to transform or neutralize negative emotions or energies and even turn them into positive wants. To turn lead into gold. There’s an invitation in the book to become aware that we have this capacity. It’s becoming aware of sisu, which actually doesn’t require that people go to expensive classes on positive psychology or run across a country or work through bookshelves of self-help material. None of that.
Everything in nature is programmed to evolve and to grow. Like the sunflower turns toward the sun and the seed under the earth goes toward the light. What we humans have that’s special is our awareness, our ability to notice, “Oh, this is what is happening”—whatever it is—and be courageous, stay loving, and keep an open heart. It’s the tiny magic wand that we have as humanity to change ourselves.
I don’t think there’s anything else, to be honest. It’s in that little increment. And where sisu links to that is that sisu is used when we have to go above and beyond what we thought we are capable of doing, and still keep our hearts open. We all have trauma and drama and we are all able to keep walking in this night toward the rising sun.
Gentle power is the choice about how we do what we do. For example, to deliver a “no” with energy and grace and power and an open heart is one of the highest expressions we can have. Learning to do that is a worthy life’s work. It’s easier to say yes, to avoid conflict and then build an inner grudge. A powerful no with an open heart is going to benefit me and it’s going to benefit everyone around me. Someone’s going to witness it. Maybe it’s a child, maybe it’s a teenager, maybe it’s my boss, maybe it’s someone else. At some point, they’re going to remember that example in a key moment. It’s a seed and it’s going to sprout and go toward the light.
Why do we refer to guts when we talk about strength and spirit? What is it about this hidden part of our body, invisible to the bare eye, that we associate with will, courage, and resolve? The curious connection between the intestines and inner strength begins to make sense when we take a closer look.
To start with, sisu comes from the word sisus, which translates as “the innermost part” or “the guts.” In 1745 Finnish theologian Daniel Jusenius defined sisucunda as the specific location in the human body where extremely strong (and even violent) affects originate. The ancient Greeks had much earlier proposed that the source of personal power lies with the intestines, and Greco-Roman poet Persius mused, “Magister artis ingenique venter” (“That master of the arts, that dispenser of genius, the belly”). Even so, after centuries of contemplation and research, the belly’s full function remains a mystery to most of us. … Isn’t it paradoxical that although the belly is considered the seat of strength and power in various cultures, it’s the softest and most vulnerable spot of the human body.
As I began my research, I discovered that the link between the gut and resilience is more than just a series of anecdotes on ancient scrolls. Recent research in gastroenterology suggest that gut microbes are part of an unconscious system that regulates our behavior responses to stress, pain, emotions, and other people. Researchers have been able to influence the brain chemistry of mice by changing the balance of bacteria in their gut, causing them to become bolder and less anxious.
Furthermore, transplanted gut microbiota between strains of mice transmitted behavioral traits along with microbiota. Recipients would take on traits of the donor’s personality—for example, relatively timid mice would become more exploratory. Recent microbial transfer therapy in children with autism spectrum disorder showed significant improvement in behavioral systems.
Excerpted from Gentle Power: A Revolution in How We Think, Lead, and Succeed Using the Finnish Art of Sisu by Emilia Elisabet Lahti. Published by Sounds True in January 2023. Learn more at sisulab.com.
Not yet part of the Spirituality & Health community? Subscribe here.
Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.