I can’t remember the first time I heard someone say it. I never said it until my thirties, when the realities of life quietly ushered in a more melancholy mood to supplant my youthful optimism. I watched friends marriages fail. I spent time in the Third World. My wife got sick. Friends let me down. And I took advantage of friends.
Darkness began to claim what seemed like his rightful place in the hierarchy of presuppositions. Things will be bad, or they will be good. Or they will be so-so. All the while Facebook reigns, and I am busy, so under the influence of my low investment friendships I settle for a shorthand way to communicate big things, and so I say, “It is what it is.”
But what does that even mean?
Here in the Rabbit Room, words matter, and they matter here because they matter out there–in the world–where the Amish fear to tread.
When I said, “It is what it is” for the first time, I knew that I was posing. Right now it makes me think of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” But in this case it is both more subtle and more consequential. I was posing because that phrase pretends to make a definitive claim that assumes insight on the part of the speaker. In fact, it assumes so much insight that the speaker need not even elaborate. I see the situation, it looks like something I’ve seen before, so I want to lump it together with all those other things I’ve seen and call a spade a spade or a thief a thief. Quite unlike what Jesus did on the cross.
If it is what it is, what is left for Jesus to do?
Jesus defines every moment, every relationship, every success and every failure, and his Spirit gives believers insight if they seek him. But the goal of his insight is always Love. “It is what it is” seems to strip the hope of Love away from the conversation. Lately, whenever I hear “It is what it is,” I get this picture of someone slicing corn off a corn cob right into the trash can.
I can understand “It is hopeless” or “It is a mess” or “It is a sandwich,” but “It is what it is” seems meaningless at best, and at its worst reduces Jesus Christ to irrelevance.
It’s not that I think we need some kind of word police. I just know that I’m already prone to missing opportunities to see God at work all around me. I’m usually thinking about myself, not what he might be up to. But if God is truly always on the move, and my role is to keep watch and not judge, then the discernment required to confidently pronounce “It is what it is” starts to seem more and more…inconceivable.