To choose courage over silence in matters that diminish human potential
and build futures free of violence
Interpersonal violence (IPV) is one of the most pervasive yet under-recognized human rights issues in the world. It affects hundreds of millions of individuals across the globe each year from every social class, income group, race and culture. Every year, 270 million children are exposed to violence in their homes.
The consequences of abuse reach far beyond the physical and mental bruises inflicted on the victims, as the systemic effects cascade across generations. Research shows that women and men who have been exposed domestic violence in their childhoods are more likely to commit violent acts, or conversely be less likely to leave abusive relationships. Exposure to violence is linked to long-term health problems such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress and depression. Victims are at an increased risk of substance abuse and suicide.
We can and must break this cycle, while seeking to reinforce empowering narratives that focus on recasting survivors as amazing, bold, badass women and men with bright futures ahead of them.
I’m a Finnish activist who for the past decade has researched how humans overcome extreme adversity. Some twelve years ago, however, I was one of the hundreds of millions who experience violence at the hands of a domestic partner each year. I created Sisu Not Silence in 2017 to remind myself and my fellow survivors and overcomers (of abuse of all forms) that there is life and light on the other side of trauma. I also wanted to elevate the magnificent upstanders, women and men, who are working relentlessly to create a better a world - a future free of violence and abundant of peace, safety, and mutual support.
To launch the campaign and connect with communities, on January 18th, 2018 I began a 1500-mile / 50-day running journey across the length of New Zealand for nonviolence and peace.
Much like running a thousand miles, healing from past trauma and impacting social change are also trials of endurance that begin by taking one step at a time. The key to overcoming goals that may seem impossible is to aim for relentless forward movement - no matter how slow the pace may at times seem.
When we come together, we are stronger than the adversities and challenges we are encountering. There is power and might in high-quality human connections. ´
During the run, the Sisu not Silence team visited cities along the way and facilitated 15 events or school visits to encourage individuals to reach out for their extraordinary strength, be inspired, and become leaders of positive change within their communities.
The aim of the community events was to bring together everyone within a particular area, who were interested in social change, and to open an inspiring space for connecting, sharing stories and discussing the ways in which we can nurture a more positive human future, build cultures of zero tolerance to abuse of any kind and most importantly, to feel encouraged and supported enough to take action.
A Finnish word for extraordinary determination, courage and resoluteness in the face of adversity. An action mindset which enables individuals to reach beyond their present limitations, take action against all odds and transform barriers into frontiers. Sisu is associated with integrity, honesty and doing the right thing even when there is no immediate reward. The capacity for 'sisu' and the potential to transcend fear, pain and distress is universally shared across geographical and cultural boundaries. At best, recognizing this quality in one another can elicit compassion and help bring our human family closer together.
Finally, the project is not about 'raising awareness' of yet another social issue. It is about creating social impact in the form of a paradigm-shift with regards to how to we speak about interpersonal violence. It seeks to create a space wherein a more compassionate, open and empowering culture toward those who have experienced emotionally or physically violent traumas can be realized - and it calls on action from you and I to build such cultures.
May our the silence we cultivate be the kind that is of our free choice and serve the purpose of holding compassionate space for one another, and may our spoken words be informed by reason and integrity, becoming powerful building blocks for a more positive human future.
This is something we can all choose to take part in right now - and it matters.
Violence within families and communities (even work places) festers in our public silence on the topic, and the perpetrators’ power is magnified by the shame society imposes on the victims.
The aim of Sisu not Silence is to end the silence around interpersonal violence and abuse, remove the stigma and shame imposed on individuals who have experienced it, and to inspire action to build futures free of violence right where one is.
While being aware of the systemic nature of IPV and other form of abuse and working to understand and influence the cultural and social causes of violence, the project does not focus on reporting the horrible statistics (easily available online) nor does it give the main spotlight to the atrocity of violence. Instead it focuses on inviting and inspiring the action required to build the future we wish and need to witness urgently.
A society that holds integrity, honesty and courage in high reverence is one in which people flourish and have the chance to live free of fear. This ideal culture does not arise automatically but is the result of conscious, daily micro-actions we each take part in. Sisu is a Finnish word that does not have a direct translation. It means to have the courage to take action against very slim odds, to stand up for what is right, and to have integrity and take responsilibility for one's actions.
One of the most essential elements is the belief in humans as ‘systems intelligent beings’ that can learn, grow and modify their behavior in the context of complex systems involving interaction and feedback loops. The 'systems intelligence' approach stems from a deep belief in human potential and upholds what is good in us, as opposed to merely fixing what is broken. By tapping into our collective capacity for intelligent behavior we can create a paradigm-shifting opportunity to influence our immediate surroundings and ultimately, entire social structures. Our connectedness is embedded within our very existence and seemingly small actions can create huge ripple effects.
Get an intro to systems intelligence here in Being better, better (PDF) and here at the Systems Intelligence Research Group homepage of Aalto University in Finland.
Vocalizing our stories of experienced trauma and injustice is the antidote to any fear, shame and sense of worthlessness we may have internalized. However, in order to create conditions that are conducive to such courageous acts of vulnerability, we must embrace trust, respect and social justice as the cornerstones of our communities. It is these elements that lay a foundation for culture that fosters sharing and openness, not silence.
Domestic violence thrives in silence, secrecy and the shame society enforces on its victims. Breaking the cycle of violence—which sometimes consists of generations of abuse—begins with the initially difficult task sharing our stories and therefore, exposing the systems that perpetuate abuse. Becoming aware of the systems within our own lives builds impetus for broad, global discourse which in turn, is the key to changing the prevailing, dysfunctional culture. We can only change what we become aware of, and what we bring into light will cease to hold us hostage.
Shining a Light
Eradicating violence, abuse, and bullying is a conversation that needs to become more prevalent in the mainstream discourse. We each hold immense power to change the public dialogue, redefine what is accepted and tolerated, and how violence should be discussed. The only way to realize this power is through action, as being passive is us casting 'casting a vote' as well. This applies to all social issues.
Everything changes the moment you step into the stream of global discourse that shapes our collective future. You become a participant, an active member and a change agent. Instead of being a bystander, you become an 'upstander'.
Creating a culture in which hurtful experiences can be discussed without fear of shaming begins with establishing high standards for the quality of interpersonal communication. To create a ‘safe space’ for someone means to be present in a way that is free of judgment, shaming and labeling. The good news is that compassion, empathy, integrity, as well as the ability for ‘active listening’ (which are all integral to such presence) are all skills that can be taught, learned and cultivated.
Over a decade ago, while living in New York City, I experienced first-hand the trauma a violent relationship can cause. I kept the abuse, initially manifesting as malicious words and demeaning slurs but gradually progressing to physical abuse, a secret from my family and friends. When my then-partner began anger-management therapy and promised he would change, I wanted to believe he would. The relationship finally came to an end after one particularly violent evening. The pictures from that night, when viewed by a court judge, sealed the end of the dark chapter in my life: my perpetrator was deported from the United States. In retrospect, I realized I was fortunate to have survived the whole ordeal.
Whereas I no longer experienced the immediate threat of physical or emotional violence, the time period left me forever changed. Most interestingly, the experience sent me on a long journey into forging meaning and building identity through my experience. Initially, I thought my story was an exception, but soon became acutely aware of the painful prevalence of domestic violence across culture, time, and space. I learned about the grim statistics, as well as the social structures and systems that perpetuate and give rise to it. I also learned there was a reason, weaved deep into the social dynamics fueled by victim-blaming and shaming, which I somehow subconsciously sensed, why I initially kept my abuse a secret. As a result of discovering the world of violent trauma previously hidden from me, I became curious about questions pertaining to the human ability to endure significant stress and persevere through extreme adversity. Who survives, and why? What can we learn from those who have managed to transform their personal barriers into frontiers?
I also wanted to understand the social systems that enforce the silence around interpersonal violence (which includes sexual violence, emotional and physical abuse).
Why is it that we can and are allowed to carry nearly any other type of survived trauma—including violence by a stranger—like a badge of honor, while our narratives of sexual abuse and violence by an intimate partner, or a family member, are met with such unease and disapproval that the only apparent option is to choose silence? Why is there no space for a mature, open conversation around interpersonal violence within the media and in our daily discourse? Why do the perpetrators so often get away with their crimes?
In 2012, I performed a complete career transition and began searching for the answers, first as an applied psychology master's student at the University of Pennsylvania and later, as a Ph.D. student in my native Finland. I was soon reminded of a very special word from my childhood. The word is ‘sisu’ and it’s about having determination in the face of extreme adversity, and taking action even against the slimmest of odds. For many, it is an entire lifestyle associated with virtues such as integrity, honesty, and valor. Indeed, it was through my research on sisu that I found the courage to vocalize the most difficult chapter in my life. Both the lived journey and research on sisu became later documented in my first international book entitled Gentle Power: A Revolution in How We Think, Lead, and Succeed Using the Finnish Art of Sisu (2023).
Speaking about the hurt I endured, the struggle of forgiving myself for not somehow supernaturally seeing it coming, and the intermittent moments of depression that still come and go, was once the most courageous thing I had ever done.
The moment I spoke about my abuse the spell broke. Now the violence I once experienced has become but one story among the many that are part of the accumulated narratives that comprise my life. Discovering my 'sisu' in this one area has translated into strength and empowerment in other areas of my life too. However, many who have endured or still are suffering abuse are not so fortunate.
The Way Forward
My intention is to use my research on sisu also to help build societies that recast survivors of any kind of abuse—bullying, discrimination, violence, social exclusion, exploitation—as the strong women and men of deep inner fortitude with bright futures ahead of them that they are.
Covering 1500 miles in 50 days is a demanding goal and I have come to see this ultramarathon, that life too is by default, as the perfect fit for a campaign to tackle the violence that happens in both intimate relationships, as well as in other social domains. Social change and healing from deep traumas are both endurance feats, which require courage, patience, and perseverance. This journey also symbolizes the importance of bringing the stories of emotional or physical hurt experienced inside our homes, schools, and communities into the globally shared arena of our collective conversations. Lastly, this is my way of paying forward the kindness of those who helped me to heal and thus, transform a negative experience into something that may even help drive forward social change and collective empowerment.
In the years to come, I hope to see the hundreds of millions of survivors of abuse gain access to similar levels of social acceptance, emotional support, and empathetic understanding as experienced by survivors of other adversities. My greatest wish is for a massive decrease in the prevalence of abuse of any kind, and to witness the birth of an increasingly compassionate world built on gentle power, where humanity is freed from the binds of psychological harm and be able to start putting our time and effort in building inter-generational flourishing and wellbeing for all of humanity.
This is an invitation to create such a reality.
Join me – on the road, and online!