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Words which matter to people

‘I don’t know that word.’ He shakes his head and starts to walk away, glancing back to add, ‘…in English.’

It is the second day of my journey around Europe, a journey in search of resilience, and I am in a park near the centre of Helsinki, asking the locals whether they can help me understand the meaning of sisu, a word that is said to be central to Finnish culture and impossible to translate.

‘It’s something about the gut,’ says an economist taking a coffee break on a nearby bench. ‘It’s something about stamina.’

By the entrance, a woman of around my mother’s age is taking her dog for a walk. ‘It is a kind of strong courage,’ she tells me. ‘People say that we won the Winter War using sisu.’

During the winter of 1939-40, Finnish forces held off a Soviet invasion for 105 days, despite being outnumbered three-to-one. In the treaty which ended the war, the borderlands of Karelia were surrendered, and their loss is still felt, above all by those Karelian Finns who became refugees within their own country. Nonetheless, the achievement of having fought the Russians to a standstill remains a matter of national pride.

The woman who stops to help me at the corner, by the pedestrian crossing, assumes that I am looking for directions. I ask if she can help me with sisu. She thinks for a moment.

‘It means that, if you really want to do something, you’ll do it.’

Across the street, two guys with piercings have been watching our conversation, so I go over to talk to them.

‘Yes,’ says the first guy. ‘It’s the inner strength that only Finnish have!’

So the rest of us don’t have a chance of having sisu?

‘Well, you do, but not in the same amount.’

Why is it so strong and so important, here in Finland?

‘It’s strong because we go to sauna!’

We are standing in front of the local library. His friend works here and he takes me inside to meet one of his colleagues. She brings up a website where anyone can ask the national library service about anything they want to know. You can search the existing answers, or if you cannot find what you are looking for, your question will be forwarded to every librarian in the country and you are promised an answer within two days. Someone has to have asked about sisu before.

‘Perseverance, persistence, resilience…’ The librarian reads off a list of possible translations, but by now I realise that what I am looking for is more than the English meaning of the word. I want to understand what it means to people here in Finland.

‘Years ago, when we didn’t have any electricity and we were into darkness for half of the year, you had to just bite your tongue and do everything that you had to do.’

So sisu was the spirit that got people through the dark times of the northern winter?

‘Yes, I think you could say that. But it gets exaggerated, too. It has become part of this nationalistic story.’

This story is something I want to come back to. As a concept, though, is sisu still important to people today? Has its meaning changed over time?

‘It still holds some sort of significance, even though life is easier than it used to be. As a word, it has a kind of power, the way that swearwords do.’

This impresses me, the idea of a word that has the force of swearing, except not a negative force. I have been trying to think of an example in English, but I have yet to find one.

Why start from here? Because I cannot think of anywhere in the world where I could stop people in the street to ask about the meaning of the word ‘resilience’ and get into conversations like these. Resilience is a technical term, one which has spread along with the influence of systems thinking and come into use in a widening range of academic and professional fields. But it has no cultural roots; which is to say, it is not grounded in the experience of people’s lives and the ways in which people have made sense of that experience. Instead, with its aura of expert detachment, it belongs to that category of words by which we hold things at a distance. I doubt that anyone would joke about resilience in the way that Finns can joke about sisu, and for this reason I doubt that anyone can take it so seriously.

This may not seem to matter, from the perspective of many of the discussions around resilience. When the subject is systemic crisis resulting from climate change, resource scarcity and the volatility of global financial and economic systems, how much difference does our choice of words make? My answer is that, when it comes to how good or bad a job we make of living through such crises, on a personal level and collectively, the ways in which we make sense of our situation can make all the difference.

In his reflections on the collapse of the USSR, Dmitry Orlov notes that the group hit hardest were successful men over the age of forty. For many, their identities were so bound up with the system that, in its absence, they fell apart. Some committed suicide; a greater number drank themselves to an early death. What killed them was not the material consequences of collapse, but the collapse of their structures of meaning. The inability to make sense of themselves in the new reality turned out to be the greatest threat to their survival.

When I talk about culture, I have in mind the structures of meaning that we make or find within the world. Push at the significance of these structures, their role in how we handle difficult circumstances, and you come up against a background assumption that seems to be characteristic of modern western societies: more often than not, culture is treated as a soft surface layer over life’s harder material and economic realities, a luxury which is the first thing to go as a situation worsens.

You can see this in Abraham Maslow’s famous ‘hierarchy of needs’. In its popular form, this hierarchy is presented as a pyramid with five layers; you move upwards through the first four of these layers before reaching anything that relates to culture. Only once the basics of subsistence and security are satisfied do we concern ourselves with meaning.

Yet, as Orlov’s example suggests, there may be no subsistence without meaning. When life is hardest, our ability to make sense of our situation is the difference between giving up and finding a way to keep going. Our words and concepts, the stories we tell, and the way we relate our present difficulties to the experiences of those who have gone before us are all part of this process of making sense. And while it is possible to speak in the abstract about our material needs, in the world as we find it, these needs are always bound up with structures of meaning and purpose, the ways in which people in this particular place and time make sense of their situation. Far from a surface layer, it seems, you cannot get deeper than culture.

Lauri is a sound artist who is fascinated by time and memory, not least the memories of his grandfather, who was among the Karelian refugees. Anu recently returned to Finland after six years living abroad. Her main project since coming back has been to set up the Helsinki Fab Lab, part of an international network of workshops whose aim is to give people access to new small-scale manufacturing technologies. We arrange to meet by the statue of Runeberg, one of the generation of Swedish-speaking Finnish writers who assembled a national culture for Finland. (A process which took place during the 19th century, when the country had passed from Swedish rule to become a territory of the Russian empire.)

‘At the same time, they created a situation where the Finnish-speaking people somehow thought they were worse than the Swedish,’ Lauri tells me over coffee in a nearby cafe. ‘Topelius, who was a friend of Runeberg, wrote a book about how this land is and what we should do. At one point, he says that Finnish people are lazy by nature and they ought to take as their role-model the Finnish work-horse. They shouldn’t complain so much about working.’

Yet it was within this romantic nationalist movement that the idea of sisu became charged with significance.

‘It has this feeling that it’s an old concept, and the word is really ancient, but it was made into a kind of national cliché at a certain point.’

‘It got powered up with Finnishness,’ says Anu. ‘With the essence of being a Finn.’

‘It was created because people needed something, a sense that we have something in here, and it’s a legend, a created concept, after all, but it worked.’

As they talk, a further quality of sisu comes into focus for me. It is not just about persistence and stamina, but sheer stubbornness, even to the point of stupidity. ‘You push on through, no matter what,’ Anu says. ‘You don’t give up, basically.’

‘And you do it because of that inner force. It’s not even because of you, it’s because of sisu that you do it.’

‘Even through the gravestone, you push through. That’s what we say.’

‘There’s a humorous side to it because, just like pushing through the gravestone, we also say: you climb the tree with your ass first! You just do it because you need to do it, no matter how smart or stupid it is.’

In 1986, having been mistaken for a Latin American, Ivan Illich was invited to Japan to address the founding assembly of an international resource centre for peace research, the result of a collaboration between research centres across Asia and Africa. He tells the story in one of his later writings, ‘The Cultivation of Conspiracy’, and explains his intention that day in Yokohama.

I wanted first to dismantle any universal notion of peace; I wanted to stress the claim of each ethnos to its own peace, the right of each community to be left in its peace. It seemed important to make clear that peace is not an abstract condition, but a very specific spirit to be relished in its particular, incommunicable uniqueness by each community.

To stress the right of each ethnos to be left in peace might sound like a formula for segregation, yet Illich was the initiator of the Centre for Intercultural Documentation in Mexico, and his earlier life as a Catholic priest had been shaped by his work alongside Puerto Rican immigrants in New York. It was these experiences that sensitised him to the damage done by universal notions: whatever words we use to make sense of an experience, these words have a history; they are drawn from a particular language and are rooted in the experience of people with particular assumptions. If we attempt to use them as abstractions, without acknowledging their histories, the result will be misunderstanding and confusion at best.

This applies even to the category of words whose purpose is to hold what they speak of at a distance, the category to which I am suggesting ‘resilience’ belongs. If our hope is to cultivate the capacity to endure, the attitudes and ways of making sense of the world that will enable us to navigate dark times, then I suggest we talk to each other about the particular concepts within our different cultures. Ripe with contradictions, ‘sisu’ may provide a vivid example, but as my journey continued, I found myself in similar conversations about everything from the Portuguese concept of saudade to the seeds of resilience lurking in the darkness of the Czech imagination. Perhaps we could see every local culture as, among other things, a kind of survival strategy, improvised in response to a particular landscape and a particular history?

None of this is to overlook the dangers of essentialising cultures and identities. The history of sisu involves a conscious project to create an identity, and the made-up quality of such concepts is best kept in view. They deserve to be questioned and tested, compared to the other ways in which people have made sense of similar experiences in different times and places, challenged as to whether they still work and for whom they are working. (How does the Finnish cultural identity that I glimpsed in these conversations – itself born of the complex historical entanglement of Finns, Swedes and Russians – adapt to the experience of new generations of immigrants?)

I wish to argue only this: that the end of all our questioning will not be a set of universal abstractions that transcend the messiness and peculiarity of the local cultural concepts with which we find ourselves. That abstract technical concepts, however usefully they serve within their own context, will always lack the power of living language. And that, if we wish the qualities that we may associate with resilience to take root in the places where we live, we would do well to look for concepts and stories which embody those qualities, and words which matter to people.

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