Throughout my marriage, two of my husband’s most-used phrases have driven me crazy. The first (as in the one which appeared earliest and has been used most often) is “It is what it is.” The second, which appeared only a few years ago, is “You don’t know what you don’t know” and, oddly enough, this one has become part of my common dialogue. I have noted how my feelings on these two phrases have changed over the years. In this post, I discuss what I’ve learned from the first of what I’ve come to realize are very profound truths.
It Is What It Is
It seemed to me that whenever my husband would say this it was always at a time when I was hoping for, or even demanding, some answer, some explanation, some justification, as to how things could be the way they were. It always seemed that these questions or conundrums that I was pondering were beyond what any human could explain; for example, how some group of politicians or other could possibly make some decision or other which clearly wasn’t for the good of the people as much as for the good of themselves or their political careers. I’d rail about this thing I considered to be unacceptable and a crime against humanity and my husband would just say, “It is what it is.” This response, of course, would make the whole situation worse, as if just the utterance of such a nonchalant phrase was tacit approval of the situation, despite knowing my husband very well and knowing full well that, no, he did not approve and that, no, it was not okay.
I’ve finally come to understand the difference.
“It is what it is” is not “It is okay“
As our marriage has gone on over the decades, I have slowly begun to understand that what my husband means when he says “It is what it is” is that, regardless of what anyone thinks or feels – even me, what?! – the situation or circumstance under discussion just simply will be what it is and none of us can control it. Not once has he said this phrase – which I’ve always considered to be plain apathy – in response to a situation that I or anyone can actually change. Realizing the difference has, surprisingly, calmed me. I would have expected the realization to make me mad, make me more determined to do something, do something to make it all change, to make it all better.
Now more than ever, while watching the world fall apart (or pretend that it isn’t), I am truly seeing that “It is what it is.” Our society – and all the societies around the world – have been built, brick by brick, human by human, institution by institution, to become what it is today. In a sense, the world has been spending capital year after year, decade after decade, century after century, all leading exactly to where we are right now. Technology has both freed the world and enslaved it. The things we can do now and the ways in which much of the world lives now would have been punished as black magic only a few hundred years ago. (Outlander, anyone?) We are so completely advanced, just short of living in the time of The Jetsons. (We don’t like to discuss those who are still forced to live closer to the time of The Flintstones than The Jetsons. Too bad for them for not being advanced enough.)
And yet, despite all this advancement, the very same problems exist today that have existed for almost all of humanity’s time on this planet: poverty, inequality, abuse, war, tribalism, violence, bigotry, neglect, corruption, oppression, pestilence, tyranny, misogyny, even slavery. We’ve just been so enamored of our screens, our entertainment, our attainment of our slice of the good life, that many of us have been able to ignore it all – and by that I mean to live pretty good lives despite it all. Of course, there have always been good people on the earth whom have fought against all of these societal sores; I’m just talking about humanity as a whole – the institution of us, not the individuals of us. Still, there they all are, never having left for even a moment of our existence.
And so I finally understand that “It is what it is.” A world-altering event such as a pandemic – and this one seems to be outdoing all prior pandemics – has shown up all the negative attributes of our societies around the world. Although it has brought out the best in some of us, it is bringing out the absolute worst in many of us and bringing it out with an arrogant vengeance. It is uncovering truths that governments would hope would be discussed only in whispers in guarded rooms. It is blocking our ability to pretend these things don’t exist.
I’ve been feeling less anxious during this pandemic and, unlike many (I hear and read), have been sleeping very well; better, in fact, than I have in years. Part of it, I’m sure, is probably due to my home situation not being as dire as that of many people. But there’s a bigger thing causing my calm. It’s that this is not new. Nothing that is happening hasn’t happened before. Civilization after civilization rises, falls to those same clearly unsolvable human tragedies, and a new one starts. I guess I’m calm because I know it doesn’t matter what I do during this. I will live through it or I won’t. People I know and love will live through it or they won’t. This civilization will continue on until it doesn’t and then a new one will begin.
What is “expected” of me suddenly has no meaning at all. What my career is or will be is no longer nearly as important as whether there’s food for my family today. The idea of being “productive” seems ridiculous to me now, displaced by simply being alive. All arguments seem trivial to me now. Nothing matters but the peace in my home and the quiet in my head as we wait to see what will be.
It is what it is.
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9