It never is what it is

Every decision, every word and certainly every action has repercussions…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

I’ve never liked the term “It is what it is.”

Those few short words sum up an era, and an attitude, of characteristics that are inherently false and paralyzing.

“It is what it is” is a proclamation of powerlessness, isolation, evasion and deception.

Here’s what I mean; “It is what it is” is an ultimate statement of non-responsibility. There’s a “nothing can be done” philosophy at work in that phrase.

And if you are in any kind of crisis, from financial catastrophe to broken plumbing to broken-down car, if there is any phrase you absolutely never want to hear, it is “It is what it is.”

If your “expert” or consultant uses that phrase, you know that not only do you have a problem, but the person you have called to help has already given up.

There was an old television commercial by a road-side service provider. The scene was a person attempting to change a flat tire in the pouring rain, with crying children in the car, on their way to something important.

The tagline of the ad was “It’s never just a flat tire.”

It was an effective ad because no flat tire is ever “just a flat tire.”

A flat tire is, at minimum an interruption, but it could also be a crisis. A flat tire could make you late, it could cause an accident, it could cause you to miss a flight or an urgent appointment.

In short, a flat tire is never just “what it is.”

In fact it would be easy to make the argument that no accident, no decision, no action, even no word “is what it is” – every decision, every word and certainly every action has repercussions.

Think of a standard spreadsheet, where every entry, plus or minus, sends its impact shimmering through-out the entire form – and set of formulas – and each new entry or variable directly impacts the tally – the ultimate bottom line.

When I was first teaching, one of the older teachers had a response to the age-old question that comes up in almost every class – “Will this count toward my grade?”

This teacher’s answer was as frustrating as it was enlightening; “Everything counts toward your grade.”

Every aspect of a student’s behavior from attitude to how they speak to the teacher or their peers to how they present their work or even their posture “counts toward your grade.”

And if you think about it, every aspect of your career, or your relationships or even your physical health and well-being is the same way; no act, from rude (or respectful) word, to an extra donut, is in isolation.

Every act or statement has its impact. And we may never (and are unlikely to ever) know the full extent of its impact.

We all know this.

A good (or not so good) night’s sleep resonates through the following day – at minimum.

An encouraging – or hostile – word influences everything that follows it from business deals to romantic possibilities.

No act or decision or word stands alone.

Nothing is ever exclusively “what it is.”

The term “it is what it is” is the ultimate term of evasion of responsibility. It’s a turning away, or even walking away from assistance.

It’s a term you never want to hear from your car mechanic or lawyer. Or plumber. Or law enforcement officer. Or anyone you called for help.

In Latin, the term translates to est quod est – “it is that which it is.” The Latin holds the sense that “it’s this and nothing more, and it won’t change or get any better” – which is not exactly the expert analysis I expect for the money I’m paying.

And finally as I implied above, “it is what it is” is inherently false – nothing is ever “what it is”: every statement, every act and certainly every decision (and grade in a class) came from somewhere.

Every good (or bad) night’s sleep came from something – and leads to many more repercussions.

There’s an ancient Asian principle, one that emerges from a millennium (or more) of human and natural observation – any and every action has a beginning and a continuation, but almost never an ending.

Every war, every business decision, every word, and yes, even every donut, has a continuing impact.

Every action or decision reverberates through the whole system.

A flat tire is never just a flat tire, a virus is never just a virus, a racist or hostile word is never just a racist or hostile word.

Everything comes from somewhere and everything leaves its mark.

“It is what it is” sums up the vacuity, cynicism and acquired helplessness of our times.

It’s a rallying cry of avoidance and cowardice. That simple phrase is a proclamation of denial of engagement or even the slightest concern about the plight of anyone else or any of the cascade of problems that seems to besiege us recently.

I’m sure you’ve heard of “peak oil.” Somehow I think we have reached peak nihilism with our maxed out use of the term “It is what it is.”

If there is any phrase that sums up the vacant obliviousness and paralysis that captures our inability to deal with even the most basic of social ills, this would be it; “It is what it is.”

No flat tire, no missed payment, no car that won’t start, no word of appreciation or criticism, no call from a long-lost friend, no death of a family or neighbor is “what it is”; it is much more, and means vastly more, than the seemingly simple act that it is.

“It is what it is” has become our anthem, the words we live by.

It’s time to leave those empty words behind.

Perhaps the most powerful thing that “isn’t what it is” is a piece of rectangular cloth with a colorful pattern on it, a design with significance far beyond its hues and shapes.

In our case, it holds some lines and a squared cluster of stars.

Our flag reminds us that our identity and our destiny is far more than any individual or group, far more than any agenda or philosophy, far more than any generation or ethnicity.

And any given document, from a magazine article to the US Constitution, is far more than dark marks on pale paper – that might be what they are composed of, how some animal or alien might perceive them, but we know that those words mean much more, and maybe even much different, than scrawls on a blank page.

Those are not scribbles of a beast, they are words of power and meaning and guidance; words of intention.

They are far more than marks on a page, even more than words; they are messages of encouragement, hope and inspiration as we move, as every era does, into new and undiscovered territory with its own opportunities and challenges.

Our destiny and our identity is, and always will be, in process.

We have many difficult days ahead, but we will prevail, and the certainty of today may not be the certainty of tomorrow.