Eric Schuck: When holding fast not enough, muster 'sisu' to move forward

When holding fast not enough,

muster 'sisu' to move forward

“Seesaw, man. Just keep focusing on the seesaw.”

I’ve heard a lot of sailors’ slang over my years as a Naval commander, but I’ll admit this one threw me. Utterly clueless, I turned to the sailor closest to me and asked what they meant by this.

The sailor looked at me with the exasperated patience parents reserve for repetitively inquisitive toddlers, and calmly replied, “Skipper, it’s the Norskie word you taught us last spring. Don’t you remember?”

Sisu. They meant sisu.

Strictly speaking, it’s Finnish, not Norwegian. And yes, I remembered.

Months earlier, when the Navy Reserve first switched us to remote work, I started each video conference with a pep talk written into the unit’s plan of the day. Looking back through my notes, I found these words: 

Sometimes ships intentionally scatter in storms. They do this for their own protection, trying to create room to maneuver.

That’s what we’re doing now: giving each other space for safety.

Make no mistake, though. Each of us remains just over the horizon from each other, unseen, but always close enough to help. I cannot tell you what the days ahead hold for us, but I can tell you that we can and will get through this together.

Until the day we can safely rejoin each other, I ask you but this: hold fast, bear down and fight forward.

Scribbled in the margins was a talking note to myself: ‘Close with sisu’.

Like the Danish hygge and Norwegian frilufsliv, sisu is one of those word that just does not translate completely into English. Often loosely carried over as ‘grit’ or ‘resilience’, it’s really more than that.

It's less a trait than a philosophy. It captures a certain toughness in the face of adversity, the capacity to endure struggles and not simply survive, but actually advance.   

To be honest, it wasn’t the lesson I wanted them to take from the day. My goal was to punctuate our collective resolve.

Sometimes, though, what matters in a message is not the words themselves, but the emotions that remain once they are spoken.

Enough months have passed that I cannot recall my precise speech — forgive me, this was the unscripted part — but I remember exactly how it felt.

Looking straight into the screen, introducing the word sisu, and explaining what it meant in practice, I gave my sailors a challenge. I told them what I needed them to do each month was not to dig in their heels, not to refuse to give ground, but rather to dig in their toes in order to claw forward, to grind ahead. 

It would not be graceful, it would not be easy and it would not be fast, I told them, but but I wanted their focus on the future. And I wanted them to do it together.    

Something in that resonated with them. Somewhere during me talking, my sailors found the message they needed to hear to carry on through the pandemic.

Admittedly, it quite literally lost something in the translation when ‘sisu’ turned into ‘seesaw’, but what matters s how their actions reflected the idea. They embraced the challenge of their circumstances with a fiery and combative resolution.

Collectively, they were going to lean into the pandemic. Each time they told one another to ‘focus on the seesaw,’ they not only shared their expectations of themselves, but reinforced their strength.

Mangled Finnish or not, I could not ask for a more complete adoption of sisu.

Sooner or later, every naval officer’s career ends. There are still a few years between me and the day when I prattle on through a retirement speech, which is the only thing standing between a crowd and a sheet cake, but I’m very lucky:

I already know my topic. I’m going to explain the importance of seesaws to sailors.

Eric Schuck holds a Ph.D. in economics from Washington State University and a professorship in agricultural economics at Linfield University. He’s spent plenty of time abroad, undertaking Fulbright fellowships in South Africa and Lebanon, active duty military tours in the Middle East, and study-abroad missions in Samoa, South Africa, France and Polynesia. However, his ancestral roots are Norwegian, and it’s a heritage her relishes celebrating with his wife and three children in McMinnville.


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