O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other. Reinhold Niebuhr
There is an idiom that over the last 20 years has become widespread. In fact, this phrase was rated the most popular idiom of 2004: “It is what it is”. We don’t know who originated the phrase, but it was first used in print by J.E. Lawrence in 1949.
The common meaning of the phrase ranges from acceptance and tolerance to the admission of failure, resignation, or futility. It is a phrase that is used to absolutely stop a conversational topic. If we are asked: “Why did this happen,” and we answer, “It is what it is.” Little more can be said; we are using the phrase to truncate the discussion. We use it when do not have anything else to say, or when we simply don’t have any more answers but are unwilling to categorize and judge something. Sports team Managers have used the phrase to deflect the questions of reporters during post-game interviews. Politicians deflect questions about scenarios with this catch-all idiom. Al Gore had this to say about his loss in 2000: "I strongly disagreed with the Supreme Court decision and the way in which they interpreted and applied the law. But I respect the rule of the law, so it is what it is."
It means, “That’s life; so be it.” In one sense, it means to stop complaining, accept the situation, and move on. Care must be taken at these times that we don’t appear insensitive and lacking empathy. A child is disappointed that an audition went badly. The last thing they want to hear from a parent is “It is what it is.” No, that is insufficient. It may not matter to you, but to the child, the moment is traumatic and requires more heart than this phrase allows.
In another sense it means that nothing can be done about it, so release the emotional attachments and rise above the ego’s insistence to perseverate. This is quite a useful idiom to remember when it comes to the past hurts we carry with us. “May we have the serenity to accept what we cannot change.”
There are many things in our lives that have affected us that we have no control over: the time I ran into my friend as we played racquetball and I knocked him unconscious. I felt badly. But it was unintentional, and his attitude as he got up off the floor was, “It is what it is.” He took no offense, didn’t harbor ill-will. Let’s just get on with the game. A temporary set-back, and let’s move forward. It is what it is.
It is a phrase that can mean something positive, or something negative; it can be insipid or profound, and is ripe with potential, depending upon the context that we provide. Kind of like: “Boys will be boys”. We can use the phrase to gloss over irresponsibility and make indirect excuses for improper behavior, or we can use it to accurately describe conduct. We use the idiom as we choose fit. The phrase itself is neither positive nor negative; it is neutral and non-judging … until we add the underlying context and hidden meaning.
I can’t help but see a similarity with the Biblical verse describing God: I am that I am. This was written as “ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh.” The word ehyeh has been called the tetragrammaton, written YHWH. It is where we get the name of God as Yahweh. It’s meaning is ambiguous and could be translated as: I am who I am, I will be who I will be, I create what I create, I cause to be what I cause to be. The entire phrase is still under debate and could be translated as: “I will be with you,” or “I am without equal”.
When I hear the phrase “I am that I am,” I hear the potential of Divinity, the unbounded expression of life and “more-ness”. I hear, “I am God, and you cannot define me, restrict me, or confine me or what I can do or will do.”
It is the same when I hear “It is what it is”. I hear, “It is what it is … for now.” It does not have to remain stagnate or ossified. ‘What it is’ can change, transform, and evolve. Just as the phrase “I am that I am” is filled with unlimited potential of being, so too, is the phrase “It is what it is”. The perspectives are just a little different: one is first-person, the other third-person, but they both express the same sentiment – that of unbridled divine possibility.
When we perceive “It” through the eyes of Spirit, whatever “it” is becomes clearer, truer, and free from our ego-dramatizations. We may not be able to change our past events – they are what they are – but through Spirit we can change the affects we have allowed past events to have on us. “It” does not have to be the hurtful, dreadful situation that we have created in our hearts and minds. It is what it is, right now, and more is possible; “it” doesn’t have to remain as we have perceived it. Through the influence of Christ, “It is what it is” becomes “It will be what it will be.” It is like Christ telling me, “Patrick, raise your awareness and allow whatever it is to become more, better, and a supreme blessing.”
God hasn’t finished honing our perceptions. We can change our judgments and attitudes through embracing Spirit in prayer, meditation, and contemplation. We can accept the things that we cannot change and change our perceptions of how those things affect us. That is what brings us serenity; releasing our judgments, false conclusions, comparisons, and attachments to people and events, which we cannot manipulate.
So it is my prayer that we may allow the Spirit of God, the presence of Christ within, to mold and modify our perceptions, freeing us from the false conceptions we have created, which stunt our thinking and awareness. May the great I AM within us and around us turn every moment into the great IT IS. May we not abbreviate our thinking and the possibilities of a situation by dismissively stating “It is what it is,” and abandoning hope. May Christ always whisper in our ear, “It is what it is … for only this moment, and behold – a new moment has come.”