It is What it is (or is it?)

I’ve been trying to figure out why I hate hearing this phrase which seems to be everywhere these days.  It’s like the ultimate cop-out, a slick way to terminate any awkward conversation and is used frequently by politicians, the police, sports people, business entrepreneurs and many pop celebrities.  I’ve heard it in bleak Scandi-noir TV dramas and once or twice even caught myself saying it.  It’s the title of several films, songs and books.  Such a pat phrase that just slips off the tongue and makes you seem cool. But why has it become popular and what does it say about our society?

To me, “it is what it is” reeks of negativity, passivity, resignation and defeat.  It’s saying, ‘this is a bad situation but there’s fuck all I can do about it”.  It’s saying let’s accept reality, let’s just lie down and die.  The phrase suggests that reality is a fixed, immutable state and that we have no control, we are merely passengers on an uncomfortable train to hell.  I don’t know about you, but that is not the way I choose to live my life.  I am not a brainwashed battery hen clucking away in a cage, pretending I am free while I’m really being processed for destruction.

OK, I agree some situations may be out of our control but there’s always something we can do to improve matters.  Just because it is difficult to change something doesn’t mean we should give up.  We should at least try.  It’s like when people shrug and say, ‘oh well there will always be wars, it’s just human nature.’ Was it human nature to profit from slavery, rape women, exterminate disabled people,  participate in blood sports and send children down the mines?  These are all horrors that we no longer tolerate in a civilised society.  They may still happen in secret but are considered crimes.  Society can and does change. People can change.

When people say ‘it is what it is’ they are implying that a situation is fixed and knowable.  This is not true.  Any situation, even something simple like ‘it’s raining today’ is a matter of perception, of experience, of interpretation.  Reality is in a constant state of flux and so are we.  It may be raining in your street but not on the other side of town.  And the rain may  stop at any moment. The sun may shine the next time you look out the window.  We are never 100% aware of all the facts.  We only have a partial view based on limited information.  For example, a loved one may be diagnosed with a terminal illness, but doctors are often wrong, the body can and does mysteriously heal itself. The sick person can adapt and learn to live successfully with illness.  Life is a multiplicity of greys, a misty landscape and not a row of black and white boxes.

Take this photograph as a visual metaphor.  It shows a rather elegant entrance to a building which could be a hotel, a school, a conference centre, a hospital, a law court, a police station…we may speculate on what lies beyond the doors but until we pass through them we do not know.  Every day in your life is like those doors.  Never make assumptions about the future. Never give up on a situation.


Photograph by the author

Next time you are tempted to say ‘it is what it is’, hang fire and try to think out of the box.   Change is always possible and it sometimes happens in small steps.  Humans have evolved and survived as a dominant species because of our ability to adapt.  We can be clever and inventive.  We can be compassionate.  The day we stop doing that and become resigned to an unsatisfactory fate is the day we cease to thrive.