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Thursday, February 19, 2009

It Is What We Make It.

There is one expression I always remember being uncomfortable with hearing:

it is what it is“.

So I decided to sit down and figure out why it flusters me so much.

It is what it is

Now, I suppose in the most literal sense, it’s a statement that just can’t be argued with. I mean, let’s say “it” is “blue”. If it is blue, it is blue. Obviously. So, in such a case, it is what it is is about as accurate as you can get. My problem with the expression is that it’s never used in that way. If something unfair, unjust, or just plain stupid is taking place in front of you, there’s always that boss or friend or someone assuring you that “it is what it is”- accompanied by a shrug of powerlessness.

I associate the expression with an attitude of giving up and settling for less. It appears to be an excuse for accepting the unacceptable; a cowardice to make a difference. Its choosing to be powerless. True, if something turns out a certain way, it turned out a certain way- it is what it is. There’s no point in crying over spilled milk. However, shouldn’t we look into why the milk was spilled, so that we don’t spill it again? If something isn’t right, we shouldn’t just accept that it isn’t right. Shouldn’t we acknowledge injustice was done, and figure out how to keep it from happening again? Shouldn’t we call out inefficiencies and seek to replace them with efficiency?

It is what it is, but is it what it should be? Is there something we can do to change that, even if only for the future? Whenever someone says “it is what is” I think in the back of my head, “but does it really have to be?” I wonder why nobody (including myself) is mentioning obvious flaws that need to be addressed; after all, if they were addressed, it would not be what it is.

I realize to challenge the expression could, under most circumstances, make things much more difficult than most people would like. I could lose a job or jeopardize someone else’s, I could gamble with another’s well being, I could make a passing situation much more complicated. Egos could be hurt, authority may feel defied, the comfort of routine could be threatened . Ironically, this seems to suggest that the fearless confidence usually backing the phrase is nothing more than a facade. So really, people tend to use the phrase because they are afraid of what could happen if we question things.

That leads me to say this: “it is what it is” is really just a cowardly way of saying “I’m a coward”.

Why can’t we make it a habit to say “this is what it is, but what can it be?” Accepting the current circumstances, yet seeking to improve. To say “it is what it is” is to deny that we can effect happenings in the world around us, or that anything matters enough to try. Sometimes we are restricted by circumstances, there are things that we just can’t control… there are “its” that can’t be changed. But there are often things that touch the things we can’t control, and if we can access them, eventually we will leave a mark. How about people like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr….they could have said “it is what it is” because challenging anything would stir up too much trouble with no guarantee of immediate results. That would have been just lovely.

I’m not saying we all need to be revolutionary rebels over every little thing we’re not satisfied with. But no matter what scale of issue is at hand, to me, “it is what it is” reflects a lack of determination, a dormancy of conviction.

But… it is what it is. People tend to settle for whats thrown at them, so we have to make the best of it. Or is there something that can be done to change that?

Whether we can directly influence the outcome of a situation, or if we are facing a circumstance that refuses to be manipulated…

...I believe:

It is whatever you allow it to be.


Mike said...

Dave, what's really funny is that the ONLY place I've ever heard the phrase, "It is what it is" is at work ... and it was used in exactly the way you describe "blue is blue." In other words, they used it correctly.

That being said, I think your point is spot-on. All things "are as they are" due to the habits we have formed. At work, processes get put into place, and years later people are still following the processes without question ... though the processes have little use in today's world. To have the courage to challenge those things is very important.

Actually, what I find even MORE important is practicing the ability to RECOGNIZE habits. One cannot challenge a thing without first recognizing that that thing has something about it that needs challenging. Our minds are structured to fall into habits very easily. So sure, we spilled the milk. It always spills. That's just how it goes. But why is that? Most people don't even recognize that the spilling of the milk IS the habit itself. And all habits need examining, for the very reasons you stated.

I think of anger as a great example. Let me tell a quick story about someone who I've never met -- who I've never seen -- though who is still a hero to me. A Tibetan Buddhist monk was detained by the Chinese in the 1970s. In the early 2000s, they finally released him, and he went to Dharamsala to visit the Dalai Lama. He had been tortured repeatedly over the 30 years of his confinement, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The Dalai Lama asked him what the most difficult thing was about the entire experience. The monk replied that the most difficult times occurred when the thought arose in his mind to stop loving the people who were torturing him. The monk continued, (I am paraphrasing) "If I had let my anger flourish, I never would have made it through alive. Instead, when those thoughts arose, I recalled that these men were humans, doing what they were doing due to the habits they had developed and the lives they had led to this point. While they were torturing me, I had no reason to be angry with them. They knew no better. I still loved them."

First, this exemplifies a man who recognizes habits for what they are, and is willing to challenge them at every turn. He understands their nature, and recognizes that just because it might "be natural" to be angry with these men, he is willing to challenge the fundamental idea that the "natural" response is natural at all.
- Mike

Ryan said...

I had an interesting experience with that disturbing phrase "it is what it is." The day after you posted this and I read it, I was getting ready to leave Teavana to move up to Berkeley. My Store Manager, Mykol, helped me carry some things out to my car (you know, like the cash register) and he and I started talking about our individual future plans.

He was kind of getting screwed by the company and getting replaced by someone else. He had been given a raw deal by his supervisor, put in a really tough spot without support, and then criticized for not doing well. As we talked about it, his conclusion was, "well, it is what it is."

I kind of chuckled to myself because I had just read this post and then corrected him, "Screw that, Mykol. It is what you make it. Learn from this and move on, don't just let it be what it is."

He looked at me quizzically, but then comprehended what I was saying. "Yeah, I guess you're right," he said, "although I just meant that there's nothing I can do to change what's already been done."

So does that mean people should say "it was what it was?" I still don't think that makes any sense. I think it still just becomes "It was what we made it."

Great post, Dave.