I used to loathe this phrase. It sounds like a cop out. When you don’t feel like giving advice to a friend or are at a loss for words, “It is what it is” is the lazy default.
Urban Dictionary agrees:
-A phrase that seems to state the obvious but actually implies helplessness.
-Used often in the business world, this incredibly versatile phrase can be literally translated as “fuck it.”
-A trite, overused and infuriatingly meaningless cliche that is utilized by provincials who think they are adding some deep, meaningful insight during a discussion.
It’s almost as irritating as, “You gotta do what you gotta do.” When the shit hits the fan, these phrases crop up everywhere. When my marriage fell apart and I was adrift and turning to people for advice, I’d hear: “Well, you gotta do what you gotta do.”
“But what if I don’t know what I gotta do? That’s the whole reason we are having this conversation!”
Friend (shrug): “It is what it is.”
Right. Got it.
“It is what it is” is a phrase that Israelis employ often. Growing up, I heard it a lot – from my cousins, my aunts and uncles, and from my parents too. Maybe it’s because Israelis live in conflict and anticipation of the next “bad” thing that could happen tomorrow, so they are forced to accept “it,” that is, life, and its harsh realities. For them, “It is what it is” is not just a phrase, it is a philosophy. It supports accepting the state of affairs rather than hiding from them and living under pretense.
So it made me wonder if my ongoing issue with this phrase has been rooted in a deeper frustration. Perhaps what angered me was not the laziness or seeming meaninglessness of this phrase, but rather the realities of my own life; of a picture that had been forming before my eyes, when for so long I’d held onto a different one. Perhaps it is the makeup of my life today – the furnishings that occupy its space – be it abandoned dreams or the reassessment of my goals that I am stubbornly rallying against.
So I’ve started to look at things differently. When people say (or think): “Cougel, don’t you miss the life you had in LA, and your nice house?” “Do you want to be doing what you’re doing right now?”
Guess what my response to that is?
“It is what it is” is not cynical, nor is it defeatist. I no longer see it as a dismissal, as a shrug of the shoulders that says, “Ah fuck it. I can’t do anything about my situation so I’m not even going to try.” It’s exactly the opposite. It means that taking an honest look at what you have and accepting the cards that have been dealt to you frees you from illusion. And from there, you can start building again.
So I’ve started to take stock of the “its” in my life, and then I’m going to make some decisions from there.
Because you know, I gotta do what I gotta do.