Sunday, November 18, 2012

It Is What It Is

It is what it is. 

Man am I sick of this phrase. I used to joke that this was the most common five words on a construction site. Probably true. But I'm starting to think it less funny. It's actually rather depressing. What is this fatalism that seems to be sweeping the nation? Everyone is saying this, or things like it. I hear it in class, on the radio, from friends, and from strangers overheard in diners and coffeeshops. Everyone seems to be throwing up their hands at the world and saying, "there's nothing I can do." 

I heard a story on NPR the other day, about teaching strategies, East and West. Here in the West, kids are taught that smart kids are the ones that do well in school. In the East, kids are taught that it's the hardworking kids that succeed. An experiment was done, some years ago, where children from Japan and from American were given a math problem far above their ability. The Americans gave up after, on average, thirty seconds, saying "we haven't had this yet." The Japanese children worked on it for over an hour. 

We deride the East, saying they are robots that learn only by rote. Somewhat true, their creativity is less pronounced. But it seems that Americans are helpless without being told exactly how to do things. We don't work for things, we give up. They said it was because failure in the West is taken as a personality flaw, not merely a lack of effort or even luck. So when confronted with an insurmountable problem, we turn away. What has happened to us?

I said to my uncle that back after WWII, there was a surge in energy, a sort of collective testosterone rush after having won the war. We were invincible, unstoppable. Just as in any contest, the victors go home, full of optimism and pride, have lots of sex (baby boom) and build lots of things (suburbia, highways, etc). The post-war boom. Things got stagnant more or less in the 70s, and now we're on a downswing it seems. Oh, there's been GDP growth, but that means little, especially to the common man, who's wages have stayed stagnant for decades. 

I think the fatalism is a defensive strategy for this decline. Things are failing, and people are stepping back from it in a sense, as a way of insulating themselves from it. That's the way things go, they seem to say, and as it falls, they try to remain separate. When things slip downwards, there is no collective energy for doing things. It is a period of waiting, to see which way things are going. But to wait too long is to fail entirely. And anyways, insulating yourself from the failure of the world is to cause the failure of the world: if no one does anything to sustain, to build, to keep alive, then, it will not be sustained, built or kept alive! It's a positive feedback loop, also known as a vicious cycle. 

Not that it's all bad, this accepting of reality; in a way it is a good thing. In remodeling homes, a specific case, you see that there's nothing you can do about the shoddy work that went before, or the fact that the wall studs are warped. The baseboard is going to have gaps between it and the wall. You grab your caulk gun and go to work. But too often I see, even in myself, an unwillingness to go the extra mile, to put in the effort and time and care to make things right. Money rules the day, and working quickly in some ways trumps doing things precisely. The evil profit motive ruining things once again. Again with the baseboard: if the corner joints aren't perfect, even when the walls were, it's okay, caulk will hide it. You say things like, "good enough for paint-grade," "can't see it from my house," and "spackle caulk and paint make a carpenter what he ain't." 

True enough. In the end, we make it look good. And often, as I said, you just have to fudge things to make them work. A good carpenter is one who can hide his mistakes, they say. One must work with what is there, must be able to see clearly what is. 

Of course, for myself, very often I rage internally against the standards some people hold. They want their walls smooth and their woodwork perfect, even in an old house, every joint hidden, every nailhole covered, and so forth. The smallest defect, they freak out over. (They also want it done for next to nothing, and as fast as possible). I may not have the patience for finish carpentry. These Euclidian ideals do not square with the world, they do not follow the curves, so to speak, of the earth. Thus the old man wastes much energy picking every leaf off of is lawn, though more fall every day, and becomes bitter and obsessed. 

So in a sense, the fatalism is a positive response. We are awakening to the reality around us, seeing it clearly, and in a sense realizing that certain things cannot be altered, and do not need to be. We are tuning in a bit better to what's there to be tuned into, ditching these Platonic ideals for a more empirical reality. This shall be the birth of the new world, as the old crumbles. 

But that it is a fatalism, and not mere clarity, is what makes me think it is an example of a greater problem. We are getting soft. We have had it too good, been too insulated from real work and real things. We have fewer than ever people entering into the trades as apprentices. In 20 years, who is going to be doing the work that will so desperately needed to be done, as we recreate our society? Mexicans, I suppose; such work has always gone to the latest wave of immigrants, from the Irish, to the Italians, the Polish, and so on. Yet as goes the prosperity, so go the Mexican immigrants, I bet. I'm sure they'd rather be poor in their own land with their families nearby, than poor in a foreign place.

Even our wars, we are loathe to fight. The hoopla over the Benghazi attacks. We are fighting a global War on Terror, however misconceived, people. Do you really think there will be no casualties? Do the Taliban or al Qaeda, after a drone strike, freak out and lob investigations and controversy at their commanders and leaders? No. These are men who know what a war is. They know about suffering, they know about effort. They mourn their dead, and go right back to the fight. 

If we are going to fight wars, which I'm not saying we should, we should do it 100%. I agree with our military leaders in this. Clear goals, and support your commanders. If you can't do both, it's time to pull out. There will be mishaps, there will be pain, there will be death. If you can't handle that, don't fight a war. 

So while I'm all for recognizing reality, we need to ditch this phrase and the attitude behind it. We are not mere slaves to fate. Perhaps the government is corrupt, business self-interested and insane. Fine, but don't submit to it with fatalism. Fight! Build something new! We can't wait for the old to fall before we work to make the new, we must start now, with hope and energy. Otherwise we're going to be stuck with some dystopian future we really aren't going to like. 


  1. Wow Brandon. Where to begin? First of all, I agree with how "It is what it is" is the most over-used phrase in our culture! Also, this was an extremely powerful piece and I would like to send it out on Twitter if you don't mind?

  2. Some people who utilize the phrase, it is what it is, do so in terms of another saying: [God] grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the ones I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. This is not to disagree with the main point of this post, it's only to say that not everyone means the same thing when they say, It is what it is.

    1. very true, of course. And all to the good, I've always appreciated the sentiments behind that prayer. But seems like most of the time, it's more like fatalism and defeat, than a wisdom thing.

  3. Enjoyed this post and your post Philosophy. You might enjoy the comment trail on this cliche at "It is what is". I have also recently reactivated a blog of mine based on this cliche.