I’ve been hearing the phrase “it is what it is” a lot recently. It seemed to appear from nowhere, masquerading as an age old saying full of profound insight, so I decided to do a bit of digging.
I was surprised to discover that it really is an age old saying (it’s the title of a prose piece by the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi, and was used in the 17th century by the philosopher John Locke to describe the concept of essence) although I’m still not sure if it really is full of profound insight.
The phrase itself is kind of redundant as it doesn’t actually tell us anything, but it seems intended to say “this is the way things are and I can’t do anything about it”, like a verbal shrug which reassures us that there is no point worrying and relieves us of the need to act.
I don’t doubt that sometimes we must accept our circumstances, because sometimes there are things we have no control over, but I’m not so sure that the easy resignation suggested by this phrase is ever truly the best option.
Because I think there is a difference between acceptance and resignation. Acceptance recognises the truth of difficult situations, resignation simply allows them to happen. Acceptance opens the way to transforming pain and dissatisfaction through strength and humour, resignation surrenders to those negative feelings with no promise of comfort or respite.
“It is what it is” may be helpful in as much as it encourages us to accept our given reality, but it may also be harmful in as much as resigns us to a loss of agency.
Perhaps it is not mistaken, but merely incomplete. “It is what it is, but…” “It is what it is, so…” Perhaps these are phrases that hold the power to move beyond resignation to acceptance, from despair to hope, through pain to peace.
In Philippians 4:6-8, Paul gives us an idea of what that “but…” and “so…” might look like:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Because whatever the “it” of our circumstances, we never lose the power to pray, and those things that are true and noble and right and pure and lovely and admirable and excellent and praiseworthy are the eternal “it” of God.