Richard J. Severson

I hear it everywhere.  “It is what it is.”  As a catch phrase of our times, it resonates like a ripened metaphor just prior to becoming another corny cliché. 

What the hell does it mean?  It is a judgment that pays homage to the inevitability of circumstances.  There is fatalism in it, humor as well.  It’s about accepting reality as it is, instead of wishing for things to be different.  It’s the perfect verbal shrug, resignation to one’s lot in life. 

Fuck you, reality!  Sure, you can mess with me, but I’m not going to whine about it.  It is what it is.  That’s my serenity prayer.  

“Is” is a conjugate of the verb “to be.”  As such, it has metaphysical overtones.  Hamlet’s soliloquy: to be or not to be, that is the question.  It is what it is, my being here at all; no question about it. 

C’est la vie.  So be it.  Water under the bridge.  Don’t cry over spilled milk.  Shit happens.  There are many precedents for “It is what it is.”  None of them are an exact fit. 

Tell it like it is.  Back in the day, we used to say that.  Also, less often, What it is (minus the all-important prefatory “it is”).  Good grief:  That is an old exclamation of empathy-resignation-exasperation all rolled into one lament regarding the unfairness of life.  Close, but no cigar. 

A New York Times article suggested that “It is what it is” traces back to the difficulties of frontier life in the state of Nebraska.  Not surprising.  Frontier life is a never-ending reservoir of American survival memes.  Cowboys on the open range, mountain men, 49ers prospecting for gold, settlers traversing a continent in their prairie schooners, Paul Bunyan and his timber-hauling blue ox….

“It is what it is” is more like a meditation mantra than a cry for help.  Live in the moment.  Don’t concern yourself with things that are beyond your control.  Stay calm and present.  Can you dig it?


  1. dougaverill says:

    In a past life, we all sat in a sterile room, my colegues and I, listening to yet another leadership vendor representative spout their key phrase as the cure for corporate life. Be Here Now!. They said. In the present. In retrospect, not bad considering you can not control the future (much) only your reaction to it. As for the past. Same. Gone. Dead. It really is what it is. Thanks Rick!


    1. Very funny, Doug, and true. Thanks!


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