Life 4

The Problem with “It Is What it Is”

While scrolling through Twitter recently, I stumbled across a meme that greatly disturbed me. I’ve reposted it below so you can draw your own conclusions before I start commentating:

At first glance, this meme’s underlying argument has merit. It’s about accepting circumstances beyond our control and relinquishing emotional attachment. After all, in the grand scheme of the universe, we humans are mostly inconsequential specks of carbon beholden to random chaotic forces. Why let those chaotic forces — the weather, war, disease — upset you?

But here’s the thing: While this philosophy of “personal detachment” has sensible cosmic applications, when adopted as a lifestyle perspective, it quickly becomes toxic. In fact, I’d argue that “it is what it is” might be one of the most pernicious, self-sabotaging beliefs of the modern age.

Promotes Passivity & Discourages Action

Generally, when people use the phrase “it is what it is,” they’re reacting to an unchangeable or uncontrollable situation. For instance, I’ve heard people say it when reflecting on recent injuries, health conditions, and other major life changes.

That’s fine — in theory, anyway. But in practice, the question then becomes what are people defining as unchangeable or uncontrollable situations? Because being human and operating as autonomous, sapient beings is exhausting: It involves accepting a lot of personal responsibility. As a result, we humans occasionally try to lighten the load by downplaying our personal power, thereby narrowing our scope of responsibility. An example: “I don’t vote/recycle/refrain from murder because I’m only one person so my actions don’t matter.”

Worse yet, if narrowing our scope of responsibility gets us into trouble, we’ll sometimes also refuse blame. In fact, refusing responsibility and playing the victim is a very common defence mechanism of the human ego. Look at how quickly people start pointing fingers and refusing blame after a car crash. When faced with a difficult circumstance like that, it’s often easier to raise one’s hands in defeat and surrender personal power. This can often make one’s life easier — at least, in the short term. But ultimately, it’s a false sense of security.

“It is what it is” also discourages action. When you respond to an unpleasant circumstance with passivity, you waive your ability to better understand and improve that situation.

I fell victim to this myself: In my younger years, I was a passive participant in the adult world. I blindly followed the instruction and guidance of my parents and teachers. When I graduated high school, I based my self-worth on their traditional metrics of success (grade-point average), I believed I had no paths in life other than the unpleasant, unideal choices public education had mapped out for me (more school or shitty jobs), and I was — as you can probably expect — miserable.

Notice that all of the clauses in the above sentence begin with I. It’s because, like it or not — and however consciously or unconsciously — I had responsibility, and I made those choices. But because they made me miserable, I also took action to seek out better circumstances, which brings me to the next segment.

Anger is Often a Necessary Step Towards Improvement

Both the “it is what it is” saying and meme highlight the futility of getting upset — or angry — at forces and situations outside our control. It’s why the meme’s first row depicts an angry responder as having the smallest brain.

But, as mentioned earlier, we humans often do have more control than we’re willing to admit. And anger is often like pain: We need it. It’s a sensation that alerts us to something being offensively bad or wrong. Don’t believe me? Imagine someone kills your entire family and burns down everything that you love. Would you want to feel all placid and passive about it, or do you think that’s a scenario that demands action?

Anger, as a physiological response, literally primes the body for action. It increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and releases adrenaline and noradrenaline. Sure, nature doesn’t always get it right, and becoming supercharged with beast-slaying wrath when, say, your neighbour’s kids leave their Star Wars toys in your driveway is nonsensical. Anger also becomes unhealthy when we indulge in it and fail to move beyond it. But here’s where anger can become productive: In priming us for action, getting angry about an unideal situation can be the first stage of working towards improving that situation.

I’ve gotten mad about how egregiously bad Canada’s real estate market is: The entire country has essentially made detached, single-family homes highly unaffordable for anyone but the upper class or wealthy foreign investors. And while I don’t control housing prices, that anger motivated me to further investigate the situation, seek out alternatives, and plan for a better future. Had I surrendered my personal power and just accepted that “it is what it is,” decades from now, I’d probably still be living in shitty-ass Vancouver — broke, propertyless, and miserable.

An Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living

The esteemed philosopher Socrates once said that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” He likely said it to emphasize the importance of metaphysical-intellectual exploration. But the saying also applies in the context of self-examination.

As a social species, we are highly suggestible and therefore, vulnerable to social programming. If we don’t carefully and critically examine the social messaging we’re bombarded with daily, we can unknowingly adopt it as gospel. And over time, these collective values and beliefs can solidify as inconvertible programming that governs our lives.

Often, this programming is fundamentally incompatible with our authentic selves. For example, a gay man might frequently encounter social messaging telling him his sexual preference makes him sick and depraved. If “it is what it is,” he believes this is how the world works, and he blindly accepts this prevailing social narrative without critical evaluation, it may lead to immense sadness and guilt. In this — and in many other cases — unexamined social programming sabotages our own interests and potential, thereby increasing net suffering and leaving us feeling hollow, dissatisfied, and unloved.

At every juncture in life, you should be analyzing yourself, the world around you, and identifying opportunities for optimization. To me, “it is what it is” is completely antithetical to that notion. It’s the idea that we should shrug sheepishly at our circumstances and blindly accept them without seeking improvement. It’s the language of slaves and the antithesis of self-governance and self-improvement.

A Few Closing Examples

In case you needed more evidence that “it is what it is” is a shitty attitude, just raise any hypothetical scenario and pair it with that saying. It immediately crumbles:

A party of extremist, racist socialists is seizing control of our country, and slaughtering millions of innocent civilians!

“It is what it is, man.”

You hate your job and your life and everything about yourself and will continue to because you have a passive, defeatist attitude and refuse to critically self-examine yourself and your beliefs.

“It is what it is, man.”

I killed your kids, your parents, your dog, all your whole fucking family.

“It is what it is, man.”

If you live by “it is what it is,” odds are you’ll die poor and unfulfilled. Because “what is” is always in flux — surprisingly malleable. And by identifying dissatisfaction, seeking improvement, and enacting change, we have the power to bend and mold our circumstances more than we often care to admit.

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash


  • Reply
    Feb 09, 2022 1:21 pm

    Yeah, this is very real…. There is some minimum level of involvement and responsibility for their life and actions (or inactions) that each person needs to own. It might be up to each person to define where to draw the line, but not even thinking about it is not good for themselves or the people they care about. Not caring, as a baseline, is how things go from bad to terrible to disastrous..

    • Reply
      Feb 13, 2022 9:05 am

      Amen to that, Mark!

  • Reply
    Feb 08, 2022 11:09 am

    Totally man, it isn’t what it is, I’d say.

    • Reply
      Feb 13, 2022 9:06 am

      Spot on. It is what it is, except when it isn’t.

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