“It is what it is," has been a popular statement for some time. Its origins are somewhat obscure, though it's traced back to a first appearance in print in 1949. (Quotes). Often it is said with a tone of disdain. However, “it is what it is” is an enlightened approach to living.
I’ve written a great deal about acceptance and its role in a happier life (see “Acceptance: It isn’t What You Think”). Acceptance is a major tenet of Eastern thought, which promotes a more conscious and accepting way of living. Acceptance is about letting go of the idea that something should be different than it is. This isn’t just resignation. That is not true acceptance. True acceptance entails stopping the desire for the world to be something it is not, putting thoughts about how things “should be” aside.
In a recent discussion with a client, the topic of acceptance arose. In debating where it fell on a continuum, we agreed acceptance is at worst neutral. It lies between embracing the situation at the positive end, and resignation to the situation at the negative end. I believe acceptance is more positive than neutral, but beginning with it as neutral is a good place to start.
It is said there are three options when something is not to your liking: assess for whether things can be changed; if not, decide if the situation should be left; and finally, if neither is an option, accept it. Many are familiar with the Serenity Prayer, written by an American theologian, and appeared in print as early as 1932 (Shapiro). The prayer asks for the serenity to accept things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that can be, and the wisdom to know the difference.
It is my contention that saying, “it is what it is," is the beginning of acceptance. Perhaps there is resignation initially, but the goal is to accept what is. The speaker is attempting to convey to himself and any others that acceptance is needed. That resistance to what is, is futile.
There are a couple of Buddha quotes that come close to what “it is what it is” inspires to be. “The good renounce attachment for everything. The virtuous do not prattle with a yearning for pleasures. The wise show no elation or depression when touched by happiness or sorrow.” In other words, without attachment one doesn’t yearn for pleasure, nor is one affected by outcomes. This lack of attachment includes to any idea of how things “should be." True acceptance is a neutrality to all. This is often how enlightenment is portrayed.
The second quote is, “There is no fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires.” This quote focuses on desire, which is viewed as the root of all suffering in Buddhism. Desire in this sense is defined as wanting things to be different than they are. It is easy to make the connection between this and acceptance. As such, the one that accepts reality as it is, does not fear anything. This quote again relates acceptance to enlightenment, where one isn’t weighed down by needless emotion.
This type of enlightenment may be too lofty a goal. I recently read a book which discussed “Practical Enlightenment." In it Mark Manson described this type of enlightenment as, “becoming comfortable with the idea that some suffering is always inevitable—that no matter what you do, life is comprised of failures, loss, regrets, and even death. Because once you become comfortable with all the sh__ life throws at you (and it will throw a lot of sh__, trust me), you become invincible in a sort of low-level spiritual way.” (p.21).
The author is describing a form of acceptance? He is advocating accepting that life isn’t always going to be what you want it to be. Though this may be somewhat different than the goal of not being attached at all to outcomes or ideas about how things should be, he is certainly advocating an acceptance of what is inherent in life, a degree of pain. To me this is the beginning of the path to acceptance. Perhaps after becoming better and better at this type of acceptance, the next goal can be ridding oneself, for the most part, of attachments to one’s opinions of how things should be.
Even this type of acceptance isn’t resignation. Resignation infers nothing can be done. Acceptance requires action. One benefits from actively working at changing what can be changed, and realizing what cannot be. One looks within to discover the expectations that lead to suffering. Finally, one recognizes that life has ups and downs, and they are all part of the whole. If one seeks true enlightenment, there is a realization these ups and downs are a creation of the mind, a result of attachment to an outcome that is not materializing. Perhaps the first step is simply thinking, it is what it is.
Copyright William Berry, 2017
Manson, M; 2016; The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck; HarpersCollins Publishers, New York, N.Y.; p.21.
Quotes Your Dictionary; 1996-2017; retrieved from: http://quotes.yourdictionary.com/articles/who-coined-the-phrase-it-is-what-it-is.html on 3/14/17.
Shapiro, F; 2014; Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer; retrieved on March 18th, 2017, from: http://www.chronicle.com/article/Who-Wrote-the-Serenity-Prayer-/146159