While reporting a story recently in Cuba, I ended up stumbling into a boxing gym (I box at home in New York regularly) and I couldn't pass up the chance to share a few moments with the men training in the open-air ring. The coach, Alberto, saw me and asked, "Do you box?" I replied in the affirmative with a hint of sheepishness. "Today you spar." It was not a suggestion. Before I could reply, he was tying 16oz gloves onto my hands. And I sparred. I sparred with the #1 and #2 55KG boxers in Cuba--something I had no business doing. They both could have KO'ed me with a flick of their wrist (see photo of my face getting melted for evidence...he was taking it easy on me).
It was an incredible experience. One of my most memorable while traveling to date.
After three 3-minute rounds, we all sat down in the corner of the ring and wiped the sweat from our faces. I was the only one to have to additionally wipe away blood.
One of the other fighters came up to me and sat down. "You are sisu," he said.
"Sisu. I'm from Finland--just here training for a few months to prepare to try out for the national team in Finland. I've been here for five days and you're the first English-speaking person I've met. There is no direct translation of 'sisu,' but it's easier to explain in English than in my horrible Spanish. In Finland, 'sisu' is a thing you can possess. It's courage to the point of being stubborn. It's relentless determination that can get you through anything. You are sisu."
I think at that point my mouth dropped. My great-grandparents emigrated from Finland. My great-grandfather was old-school, and vowed to never speak Finnish again after leaving his country. He would only speak English because he was now "American." No one in my family ever learned about sisu. But now here it was...with me in Cuba in a boxing ring.
I explained all of this to my new friend. "See," he said. "You have sisu in your blood. I knew it."
I think we all have sisu in our blood--in our hearts at the very least. When I got back to NYC yesterday, I did a little research on sisu (because I also have a fascination with cultural constructs that have no direct translation (I.E., cynefin in Welsh, Natsukashii in Japanese). This is what I found:
"Adversities are an integral part of human experience, but what is it that enables us to endure the toughest of situations and take action against nearly impossible odds? What keeps us going, when we feel we have reached the end of our abilities?
The small Nordic country of Finland has a cultural construct known as sisu, used to describe the enigmatic power that enables individuals to push through significant hardships. The term dates back hundreds of years. However, the idea of sisu is much older. It is a central part of Finnish collective discourse and can been seen as a life philosophy. Sisu is extraordinary courage and determination in the face of adversity. It’s about not seeing a silver lining in the clouds, and yet jumping into the storm anyways. At the core of sisu is the idea that in each of us there is more strength that meets the eye. Even though the construct of sisu has its roots in Finland, it is relevant to all human beings anywhere in the world. It is a potential which we all share and which can have a powerful impact on our daily lives. Sisu is embodied by people everywhere who defy the odds and hold on to hope when there at first seems to be none. "
You can read the rest of the definitive essay in the link I'm providing.
I'm writing all of this to you, my peers, because I think it's important to remember what we embody and what we possess no matter where we are, what's happening, or who is "in power." We all have power within us that no executive order or obstacles or negative discourse or shitty circumstance can delimit. That's exciting to me, and I hope it is to you all, too.