What is what it is?

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

The other day, I got to thinking about the popular expression, "It is what it is," usually delivered with an implied shrug, meaning a refusal to get bogged down in judgment, a willingness to accept the reality before us and work with it — or around it. The realist doesn't ask how it should be or how we want it to be, just how it is. There's something attractive about that. But it isn't the whole story.

Martin Buber, in his classic book, I and Thou (or I and You, depending on the translator), said we live in two very different realms, the world of I-It and the world of I-You. The latter is a deeper "standing in relation" to someone or something, speaking what he calls "the basic word I-You" with our entire being. There is no gap "between" subject and object in the I-You relationship, only connection, subject to subject, in the intense crucible of encounter. I-You relationships give our lives meaning, richness, and depth. 

Alas, we cannot live in the realm of I-You. We cannot hold onto it forever. Inevitably we revert back and spend most of our lives in the world of I-It, a much shallower relationship to people and things, where, at its worst, everything becomes a mere "thing" to us. Living most of our lives in the realm of I-It, Buber calls, "the melancholy of our fate." Life is enriched by our temporary entry into I-You relations. The only tragedy is to live our entire lives in the realm of I-It and never experience I-You at all. 

Since reading his book — a book that changed my life — the word "it" has taken on a different meaning for me. And that comes to mind every time I hear, "It is what it is."

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how many different lenses there are to "it". Here's a sample:


It is what it is.

The realist's mantra

It is what I want.

The Id's mantra

It is what it should be.

The Superego's mantra

It is what I need.

The Ego's mantra

It is what the heart yearns for.

The Romantic's mantra

It is what will eventually be.

The Evolutionary's mantra

It is the beginning of the end.

The Apocalyptic's mantra

It is what is written.

The Determinist's mantra

It is to be or not to be.

The Existentialist's mantra

It is what I say it is.

The Authoritarian's mantra

It is what you say it is.

The Servant's mantra

It is whatever you believe it is.

The Relativist's mantra

It is what most people say it is.

The Conformist's mantra

It is the opposite of what most people say it is.

The Contrarian's mantra

It is what is.

The Buddhist's mantra

It is what's in the eye of the beholder.

The Aesthetic's mantra

It is what works.

The Pragmatist's mantra

It is what it must someday become.

The Progressive's mantra

It is definitely a step backward.

The Reactionary's mantra

It is not what it appears to be.

The Illusionist's mantra

It is not how it looks.

The Defendant's mantra

It is better than it seems.

The Consoler's mantra

It is better than it might have been.

The Apologist's mantra

It is better than nothing.

The glass half-full mantra

It is a step in the right direction.

The Optimist's mantra

It is not what the doctor ordered.

The Curmudgeon's mantra

It is what you and I agree it is.

The Compromiser's mantra

It is what it always was and always will be.

The Fundamentalist's mantra

It is what we decide together to make of it.

The Consensus-builder's mantra

It is what is possible.

The Politician's mantra

It is what is impossible.

The Extremist's mantra.

It is the grasp just beyond our reach.

The Idealist's mantra

It is what it is if we can believe what we see with our eyes and if there is such a thing as external, objective reality.

The Skeptic's mantra

It is.

The minimalist's mantra


What is it?

It depends. 

"It" presumably refers to "the truth," but only a shallow truth can be found in the world of "what it is." A greater, deeper truth is found in relation, I to You. The world of I-You makes us more human. The world of I-It, the longer we spend in it, makes us less human. 

Maybe "it" doesn't refer to truth so much as our humanity.

So the phrase should probably be "It is what it is — depending on who you are."

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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