In some contexts, the phrase expresses a wonderful philosophy. It suggests that we should accept the unique existence of something without trying to change it or subjugate it to our own wishes. Who better than Mr Bob Dylan to express this: ‘I ain’t looking to simplify you, classify you… analyse you, categorize you… or inspect you or reject you’.
Another significant poet, the Victorian Gerard Manley Hopkins, coined a new word, ‘inscape’, to express the distinct, individual being of an entity. He describes, for example, a group of poplar trees as a ‘sweet, especial rural scene’. They are what they are. They have individual, complex characteristics which differentiate them from anything else.
The expression can also remind us not to stress about things we cannot change. It is helpful to recognise what we can and can’t control in our lives, and not spend energy and time trying to have an effect in a situation where our efforts can never succeed. It’s good to be relaxed when being uptight isn’t going to make a jot of difference.
But what about the everyday experiences when we can do something, we can affect an outcome, but choose not to? We use this handy little phrase to help us to back out of responsibility for our actions by implying that we have no choice.We cover up the reality by playing the philosopher in order to cut off any discussion. ‘It is what it is,’ we say with a knowing look, a world-weary shrug, a meaning nod, and there we are on the Left Bank in Paris with Jean-Paul Sartre and the gang, exploring the nature of being, rather than getting out of having to explain or take responsibility for, say, letting someone down, or being negligent, or thoughtless, or refusing to talk about something.
- I can’t help you with the pitch after all. It is what it is.
- I’m afraid I’ve double-booked. It is what it is.
- School/work/family/friends? Oh, you know, it is what it is.
- You were hurt by what I did/said? Hey, it is what it is.
- The order won’t be ready on time. It is what it is.
- My car is obstructing everyone? I need to pick up my kid. It is what it is.
There isn’t anything remotely zen-like about this kind of situation. The use of the phrase in these and similar circumstances cuts off discussion. It is a dismissive formula which places the speaker in the dominant position and implies that to try to respond or to open up a dialogue is — well, it’s like King Canute demonstrating that no-one can turn back the tide. Of course anyone can reply, remonstrate, question, explore, but it’s been made clear from the beginning that it would be an uphill struggle. There is nothing more to discuss. It is what it is.
Take a different perspective
The facile use of this expression limits our engagement with possibilities. We stop saying ‘What if?’ ‘What can we do about this?’ ‘How can we turn this situation into something that we like more?’ We stop looking at causes. If everyone blithely accepts that something is the way it is, who is going to ask why a situation is what it is, what happened to cause it, and what can be learnt from it?
This applies not only to the big questions, the ills and wrongs in our local and global society, but in our personal dealings as well. Shutting down discussion creates barriers and puts distance between us. But we needn’t accept this response as the final word. It takes perseverance and skill to overcome this verbal barrier, but you can use a response which offers a different perspective:
- Maybe we can do something about this
- Perhaps it doesn’t have to be this way
- What do you mean?
- Tell me a little more about what you’re thinking/feeling
- You sound resigned/unhappy
- You sound as if you’ve given up on the situation
- Do you have any thoughts/insights into why it is this way?
What a shame, that for the sake of a fashionable idiom, we are limiting the way we communicate with each other. We don’t need to accept that this is what it is.