Recently, as I spoke with a student about a tremendous amount of grief in their life, these clarified for us. People so often say "it is what it is" as a kind of concession to the factors that we cannot control. It is what it is because accidents happen. It is what it is because global climate change seems inevitable, It is what it is because illness and death eventually touch all human creatures. This is most certainly true.
Yet, just because something is a certain way now does not dictate what it will be tomorrow. Today, my marriage is what it is, though tomorrow it will be what my spouse and I make it together. The climate crisis is what it is today, though tomorrow it can change depending upon our decisions and behavior. Today, your grief is what it is. Tomorrow? It can be something different.
When I work with college athletes, one of the things I say over and again is this: control what you can control. You can't force your teammates actions, but you can do your very best to set them up for success. You can't predict the next pitch, but you can practice hitting fastballs and curves, sliders and changeups, even knuckleballs. In short, we can control our response. We can be proactive by preparing for any number of potential reactions. This is true in sports, but it is also true of life writ large. When we stop with "it is what it is" we run the risk of giving up too much control. Now, we don't control everything. In fact, we don't control most things. But we do have some authority over our own lives, some capacity to influence our behaviors and those immediately around us. We can be proactive in developing healthy responses so we avoid reacting in unhealthy ways.
Indeed, there's great value in the simple truth that "it is what it is." An apple is, after all, an apple. Death is, sadly, a constant in life. Illness is, too frequently, inexplicable and indiscriminate. Failure happens, as do the plethora of demands laid upon so many folks in lives where work, family, and civic demands leave hardly any time for self consideration, much less self care. Admitting the present reality is healthy differentiation.
Yet, the present is not our only reality. It is simply our current one. We each have a past that contributed to the present, especially our response to our present circumstances. Moreover, we each have a future that we can shape. Whatever today is, it is not what tomorrow will be. Tomorrow will be what we make it with one another.
This is essentially a claim of relentless hope. There's always unrealized potential, which means there's always room for things to get better. Give yourself the space to see the world both as it is now and as it might be. And then, when you're ready, start making the necessary changes to have the world become what you want it to be.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.