(and it ain’t what it ain’t)
Forgive me while I rant: “It is what it is”. I can’t bear to hear that statement. It’s loathsome, trivial, trite, vacuous and incredibly enfeebling. There is no come-back from that remark. I don’t even think that people have any idea of what they mean by it, they’re simply mouthing a statement that’s being bandied about by all and sundry.
I have two problems with this. Firstly: It’s vacuous because it’s a tautology. It’s like saying: a tree is a tree. Duh. It’s not deep and meaningful, it’s just facile. It’s not a new-age 21st century reworking of Zen, because it crops up in the weirdest contexts that have nothing to do with spiritualism or philosophy. The phrase not only puts my teeth on edge but I also have to refrain from emitting a low growl at the same time. Idiots! If you asked the person who made the statement to explain what they meant, they would no doubt say: “exactly what I said” and repeat “it is what it is”. Trust me, I have heard this.
The first time I heard people use this phrase I was perplexed: what did they mean? But when I asked they couldn’t answer or clarify. The closest they came was “its just the way it is”. Hm.
Secondly, and perhaps more worrisome is that “It is what it is” ”abdicates responsibility, shuts down creative problem solving, and concedes defeat. At its best it’s used as a means of inferring that it was an obstacle that couldn’t be overcome; that it was a force of nature, inevitable and unavoidable and beyond the scope and capability of the individual. In short: defeat. At worst, it is used to frame a response, setting up a situation where there is no point in addressing the problem because nothing can be done: “Don’t worry about figuring out a Plan B or Plan C, because ‘it is what it is’.” It’s not only an admission that the problem is too hard but also impedes any creative solutions. Is this really where we’re heading? Is this the new zeitgeist?
And then one day I came across this same phrase in a book I was reading about a group of displaced Iranian refugees who find solace in weekly poetry meetings. The words they share inspire each to turn inward and discover beauty long buried. A very different interpretation of the phrase, which I discovered, was attributed to that great Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Rumi. The term in Farsi, “Fihi Ma Fihi”, is literally translated to “In it what is in it” but Rumi scholars concur that the meaning is more aptly translated to “It is what it is”. Rumi asks, “What more is there to say”? Rumi is trying to move us beyond the need for explanations. He describes that moment when truth reveals itself directly to us like an open book. His tales and metaphors are luminous, beckoning us to new states of consciousness. “These words are for the sake of those who need words to understand. As for those who understand without words, what use do they have for speech? The heavens and earth are words to them. . . . Whoever hears a whisper, what need do they have for shouting?”
A far cry from the trite, overused and infuriatingly meaningless cliche adopted by people who think they are adding some deep, meaningful insight. Poor Rumi; for his insights to have come to this.