Paper cuts everywhere but a distinct lack of swearing, finger sucking and band-aids. That’s because I was in the National Nordic Museum’s special exhibit “Paper Dialogues: The Dragon and Our Stories.” It was one the most amazing displays of paper cutting I’ve ever seen.
The museum also has a permanent exhibit on all things Nordic. There are many photos of painful and treacherous poverty in Scandinavia; painful and treacherous boat crossings to America; painful and treacherous logging in the Northwest. All this resulted in the explanation of the Finnish word sisu. Simply put: it’s determination in the face of extreme adversity; it’s courage and resoluteness to decide on a course of action and then stick to it no matter what.
There were stories about Finnish sisu being the reason they defeated the Russian Army. So you got the feeling that sisu is a kind of masculine, stoic courage. Very Clint Eastwoody. It all seemed so grim to me.
All this was in direct contrast to the utterly delightful, light-as-a-hummingbird art of paper cutting. Talk about sisu! Take a close look at this paper cutting art. Patience, skill, and calm determination was needed to complete this project. Also, very sharp Exacto knives. But to me this demonstrated a kind of feminine sisu.
I’m entranced by this since regardless of our ethnic background, we need to gin up some sisu to get through this global pandemic, the national uproar, statewide disasters, change in local government and change in our own church community.
But my research has shown me that there is a downside to sisu. Sisu can make it hard to ask for help or show any signs of weakness. Persevering for too long can harm yourself and others. Sadly this is what happens when, in spite of warnings, hikers press on and are met by an avalanche. Too much sisu can kill you—and your friends.
I think it needs to be tempered, what my colleague Jennifer Butner calls “tenderfierce.” The ability to hold on and be strong, but also have compassion for yourself and others. There must have been times when cutting this paper the artist hiccupped or sneezed or a spider dropped on her hand. We can only hope she cut herself a break—and a big piece of chocolate—and started again. So fierce determination and tender compassion—going strong but turning back before disaster.
There are many passages in the Bible that urge us to, “Be strong and of good courage.” To me this sounds like friendly support and encouragement. Nothing grim about it. So let us be strong and of good courage. I know this is simple but not easy.
My mother wept on the phone as I explained I couldn’t see her for lunch because her community is in lockdown. I hung up in tears myself. I was down to my last molecule of sisu and very low on good courage and strength. That is until a friend said, “Hey, let’s go to the Nordic Museum and enjoy some art!”
So let me echo St. Paul as he wrote to the Christians in Rome: “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”