Thursday, April 2, 2009

"It Is What It Is."

All We Are - Matt Nathanson (mp3)
Doesn't Have to Be That Way - Will Hoge (mp3)

The dude running a live webinar said it yesterday when talking about permitting and encouraging comments on your web site.

An office pal of mine said it when talking about working with a frustrating coworker.

A colleague in charge of a different department says it about five times an hour about anything and everything.

My mother said it on Sunday, and I think she was talking about the crappy wine selection in Chattanooga.

Although it's not my specialty, my understanding is that this particular sentence -- "IT IS WHAT IT IS" -- has officially become a meme, something that has embedded itself into the culture of our moment. Unfortunately for me -- or, as the meme would go, "me being me" -- when a saying of this nature becomes second-nature to that many people in my circle, it also means said saying is likely to have totally jumped the shark.

"Jumped the shark," for example, jumped the shark about a year ago. One frequent reader accused Texas Hold'em Poker of having jumped the shark, and it was shortly after his comment that I was convinced the phrase itself had done likewise.

Since at least two of the people who regularly visit here find themselves using It is what it is in their general lexicon, I'm not trying to dump on them. We all have little favorite phrases that we unknowingly wear out, and since I'm writing and talking most of my day, I'm only grateful to be blissfully ignorant of my own lest I be struck dumb for fear of uttering them anymore.

Still, I can't deny that this particular sentence and its high-quantity of use perplexes me. It is what it is. At some mysterious point in recent history, this particular phrase overtook the previously-popular Que Sera Sera in its common usage, and that shift feels kind of tragic.

The latter means "what(ever) will be will be." That's more of a future-focused saying. It's generally intended to offer a balm for anxiety, a soothing acknowledgment that much of what happens as the world turns into the future is out of our hands and best accepted as such. Que sera sera is the Cliff's Notes version of the Serenity Prayer.

Examples:
  • "Five planes have crashed in the continental U.S. in the past week, and I'm scheduled to fly to Osh Kosh tomorrow! Oh well. Que sera sera."
  • "I have my annual review with the boss tomorrow. With the economy in the shitter, I'm not sure what to expect. Oh well. Que sera sera."
But the former, It is what it is, is a present-focused notion that seems to be about the acceptance of the unpalatable and undesirable.

Examples:
  • "I think gangrene has developed in my big toe. Oh well. It is what it is."
  • "I'm pretty sure our pastor is drinking scotch and selling meth out of his home. Oh well. It is what it is."
And that's why It is what it is bothers me so much. Because it's mostly about resignation. It's surrendering to that which you'd rather not accept. It's raising a big white flag to the unkind hand of fate, a hand that's resting on your shoulder at this very moment.

It's about settling.

And when we settle, we inevitably find ourselves looking out the window in wistful lonely moments and thinking, "Why does it have to be what it is? Why did I roll over and take it?"

It is what it is seems not philisophical but defeatist. Que sera sera seems precisely the opposite.

Maybe both, ultimately, are just meant to say, "That's Life." If so, then I'll pour one out for my homeboy Frankie. But for me? One version is a whole helluva lot easier to live with than the other.

"All We Are" is from Some Mad Hope and "Doesn't Have to Be..." is from Blackbird on a Lonely Wire. Both are available at iTunes and Amazon.com, and if you like these songs, you'll love the whole albums.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice job, homeslice.

Jean Louise said...

I am comforted by the belief that fate and serendipity exist not just in the exact place in which I am standing, but also around the corner. I had never given it much thought before today, but "It is what it is" doesn't really allow for that possiblity. I can always count on BOTG to make me think about things I haven't before.

Hank said...

Saying that "jump the shark has jumped the shark" actually jumped the shark at least two or three years ago.

As for titular phrase of this post, I think it is the Aloha of our building.

Karos said...

Well shit. I was going to do the whole jump the shark thing too and it done been did. The funny thing is I just typed "hump the shark" by accident, since the j's next to the H. Now, there's a new twist on an old saying.

As the wise sage Rick Springfield once said -- it IS what it is.

Speaking of... I'm interviewing him next week. Send me questions.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reminding me how many times I say this completely circular statement in an average month. I am cringing right now.