The Stoic Meaning Behind the Saying
You’ve probably heard it before– “it is what it is.” Is this a cowardly and foolish abandonment of responsibility or a courageous and wise acceptance of that which we cannot change?
Of course, the usefulness of this phrase to your personal life has to do with how you understand it and apply it to your day-to-day experience. That being said, the implied notion of resigned acceptance is one that can actually be quite liberating if you view it through a Stoic lens.
“It Is What It Is”: What Does It Mean?
Many times, you’ll hear the phrase “it is what it is” being used to express acceptance of a difficult situation that cannot be changed. Some people might view the expression as a way to justify not taking action to improve one’s circumstances or to change an undesirable situation.
However, the deeper meaning underlying this phrase recognizes something that the Stoics knew very well: some things in life are beyond our control.
“A thing either is what it appears to be; or it is not, but yet appears to be; or it is, but does not appear to be; or it is not, and does not appear to be.”
The implication here is that when it comes to the things that are outside of our control, we should look reality in the face and accept it. Rather than judging these things or getting wrapped up in negative emotions about them, we can learn to embrace what our experience and life consist of and focus on the things that we can control.
If we are able to accept reality and the fact that much of it is outside of our control, something incredible happens– we can actually start to embrace it. This connects to the Stoic notion of amor fati– loving one’s fate– which we’ll discuss a bit further on.
“Fate rules the affairs of men, with no recognizable order.”
– Seneca the Younger
In short, though, the Stoics believed that the universe is rational and ordered (though, as implied by Seneca in the above quote, this order might not be recognizable to us.) They believed in fate, which is defined as “a string of causes, an inescapable ordering and connection” and “a rational principle for things administered by Providence within the cosmos.”
“Fate is the endless chain of causation, whereby things are; the reason or formula by which the world goes on.”
– Zeno of Citium
They posited that the wise man lived according to nature and accepted their fate. Rather than wasting time and energy being enraged or upset about things outside of one’s control, the sage understands that it is a part of the larger order of the cosmos.
“It is what it is,” then, might be a go-to phrase for the sage-like character. It is a way to look at a situation, an event, or an aspect of life without the foggy glasses of judgment, emotion, and desire. It is a way to embrace the objective reality of every moment and do what we can with what we have without getting caught up in a fantasy world of our own making.
Who Said, “It Is What It Is”?
According to the New York Times, the phrase “it is what it is” first emerged in an article published in 1949. Appearing in The Nebraska State Journal in a piece by J.E. Lawrence, the context was regarding the adverse conditions faced by people in Nebraska during the frontier era.
“New land is harsh, and vigorous, and sturdy. It scorns evidence of weakness. There is nothing of sham or hypocrisy in it. It is what it is, without apology.”
There actually is an appearance of the phrase as early as 1835, showing up in the publication Pamphlets for the People, but the usage is a bit different. Here, J. A. Roebuck says:
“That very sort of bastard law I have been describing to you, which they, themselves, call the unwritten law; which is no more made than it is written; which has not so much as a shape to appear in, not so much as a word which any body can say belongs to it; which is every where and no where; which comes from nobody, and is addressed to nobody; and which, so long as it is what it is, can never, by any possibility, be either known or settled.”
We also find the phrase in The Gertrude Stein Reader, which was published in 2002. However, considering that Gertrude Stein died in 1946, it seems clear that she used the phrase prior to 1949 in The Nebraska State Journal Article:
“The begin what is not begun is not to begin everything. What is all is deciding that having been expressed it is that and being that why should not that have what it has and it certainly has what it has, it naturally has what it has because it is what it is and it is everything and everything is all.”
– Gertrude Stein
Beyond that, many of the occurrences of this phrase come from after the most noted use of the phrase in 1949. It is perhaps fair to say that the contemporary meaning of the phrase that is an expression of resigned acceptance was first used by Lawrence in The Nebraska State Journal. Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that the phrase really started increasing in usage during the 1990s.
The notion of accepting reality as it is is quite Stoic. It is not an abdication of responsibility in life. Instead, it is a rational understanding of what is real– which consists of what is in your control and what isn’t in your control.
“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will — then your life will flow well.”
There are a number of Stoic concepts that relate to “it is what it is,” so let’s take some time and go through them one by one.
The Dichotomy of Control
According to Epictetus, the things we can control in life are very few indeed. His list includes:
- Whatever are our own actions
On the other hand, the things we can’t control include the following:
- Whatever are not our own actions
“It is what it is,” therefore, is a way that you can express your acceptance of the aspects of reality that are beyond your control.
Though this might seem like a defeatist attitude, it becomes quite freeing when you realize that you do have control over your own attitude toward the things that you don’t control.
“It is our attitude toward events, not events themselves, which we can control. Nothing is by its own nature calamitous — even death is terrible only if we fear it.”
It can be surprisingly difficult to separate your attitude about an event from the actual event itself. When something “bad” happens, our minds associate all kinds of feelings, emotions, and thoughts with the event. These personal experiences aren’t the event, though. They are contained within our own minds.
The things within our minds are the things we have control over– that and the things that we say and do. If you get into a fender bender, you can swear and shout and curse the sky. You can get mad at the other driver, or you can get mad at yourself.
No matter what you do, nothing will change the fact that you got into a fender bender. It happened. It is reality.
With practice, you can have genuine control over how you react to this type of situation. Maybe you were at fault, and there is a very important lesson to extract that will save you from the trouble and potential danger of a similar situation in the future. Maybe it wasn’t technically your fault, but you still could have been being more vigilant.
Maybe there is absolutely nothing that a reasonable person could have done to avoid the accident, at least on your end. In this case, you can work to accept the reality of the situation and contemplate whether there are lessons to be learned.
No matter the fault you played– no matter how much control you could have had on the outcome– the phrase “it is what it is” can help you ground to the fact that you are in this situation, and it’s now your choice how to think about it and what to do about it.
As we discussed a bit earlier in the article, “it is what it is” can also be related to the Stoic notion of loving one’s fate– amor fati.
“The willing are led by fate, the reluctant are dragged.”
Many things happen to us in life that we can perceive to be bad, terrible, calamitous, and tragic. At the same time, we don’t have to spend the rest of our lives bent out of shape with negative emotions about them. While it’s important that you don’t repress your emotions and allow yourself to acknowledge how you actually feel, you can also learn to incorporate an understanding of amor fati into the way you perceive the situation.
“While the fates permit, live happily; life speeds on with hurried step, and with winged days the wheel of the headlong year is turned.”
– Seneca the Younger
Essentially, embracing this idea means that you see everything that happens in the course of your life, including pain, suffering, and loss, as necessary and even good.
We find evidence of the concept of amor fati in the writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Though they didn’t use these specific words, it is clear that they were committed to accepting reality and fate.
“Remember: Matter: how tiny your share of it. Time: how brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate: how small a role you play in it.”
– Marcus Aurelius
An individual who did use the actual phrase, though, was Friedrich Nietzsche. The idea is associated with his idea of “eternal recurrence,” which means that everything recurs infinitely over an infinite period of time. He developed from this idea a desire to have the willingness to spend eternity living the same life over and over again.
In Ecce Homo, section 10, Nietzsche says:
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
He didn’t just use this phrase once, though. He discusses it repeatedly, as in this passage from The Gay Science:
I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Truly loving one’s own fate means embracing the bad along with the good. This means embracing suffering in one’s own life by understanding it to be necessary. Nietzsche says that though he doubts that great pain “makes us ‘better,’” he knows “that it makes us more profound.”
Adversity and suffering aren’t seen as good things within this worldview, but instead, a precondition for good and that bad must exist in order for good to have any meaning.
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Of course, this isn’t all necessarily Stoic in nature– after all, Nietzsche wasn’t a Stoic and had a number of points of criticism of the philosophy– but it can be useful to see just how radically one can take the idea.
“Welcome every experience the looms of fate may weave for you.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Back to Stoicism and “it is what it is,” the phrase is a simple way to remind yourself of the nature of reality. It can help you zoom out and see that how you are reacting to the situation isn’t the situation itself and perhaps even that the situation is a part of a larger order and, therefore, good and necessary.
The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent
The Stoics believed that virtue is the only good and vice is the only bad. What about everything else, then?
“All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature.”
-Zeno of Citium
Well, they are indifferent.
In life, it’s easy to see the things that happen to us as “good” or “bad.” It was good that we won the lottery; it was bad that we crashed our car.
Were those events really “good” or “bad,” though? What if your miraculous lotto winnings actually led to a life-destroying gambling habit? What if your car crash brought you to a hospital on a particular day at a particular time where you met the person you ended up marrying?
Of course, these are extreme expressions of this phenomenon, but it helps to illustrate the point. Whether something is good or bad beyond virtue or vice is a matter of perspective.
Marcus Aurelius offers this wisdom on how to perceive the things that happen in life:
“True understanding is to see the events of life in this way: ‘You are here for my benefit, though rumor paints you otherwise.’ And everything is turned to one’s advantage when he greets a situation like this: You are the very thing I was looking for. Truly whatever arises in life is the right material to bring about your growth and the growth of those around you. This, in a word, is art– and this art called ‘life’ is a practice suitable to both men and gods. Everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing; what then could be strange or arduous when all of life is here to greet you like an old and faithful friend?”
– Marcus Aurelius
He expresses a similar sentiment in the following quote:
“Whatever the universal nature assigns to any man at any time is for the good of that man at that time.”
– Marcus Aurelius
If you can recognize that “everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing,” it becomes much easier to stop ascribing positive or negative connotations to external events. Instead, it simply “is what it is.” Beyond that, “what it is” is exactly what you need.
The Stoics believed that we should always be striving to become sage-like while simultaneously recognizing that most of us probably won’t ever get there. This means that we should work to improve ourselves constantly– we should never stop the march toward becoming more virtuous and being the best people we can be.
At the same time, it can be incredibly frustrating to come up against your own failings time and time again. It’s important in these moments to remember that progress is the goal, not perfection.
The point is to live now, to work to better yourself now. After all, none of us know how much longer we’ll be alive to have the opportunity to do so.
“Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.”
– Marcus Aurelius
“It is what it is” can help you recognize where you are right now and look at where you are trying to go. Rather than getting caught up in inflating your ego or bashing yourself for not being better, it can allow you to look your reality square in the eye and continue walking forward toward personal progress.
Seeing Reality For What It Is
Another important notion in Stoicism is the essential task of looking at reality objectively.
This is incredibly difficult because our meddling minds are always pouring judgments, opinions, and feelings all over things that simply are what they are.
“Embrace reality. Think about what delights you – the small luxuries on which you depend, the people whom you cherish most. But remember that they have their own distinct character, which is quite a separate matter from how we happen to regard them.”
When you learn to hone your sense of what really is, it can have a significant impact on your life. You stop getting bent out of shape about the fact that things aren’t the way you want them to be. You see what is there without extreme passion, and you determine whether or not it’s something that you can change.
“Regain your senses, call yourself back, and once again wake up. Now that you realize that only dreams were troubling you, view this ‘reality’ as you view your dreams.”
– Marcus Aurelius
When something we perceive as bad happens to us, our minds can become like a storm. We are filled with cycling thoughts, extreme feelings physiologically, and passionate emotions.
If we can recognize that these things are just in our minds, though, and not actually the event in itself, we can start to see reality with much clearer eyes.
“Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance – now, at this very moment – of all external events. That’s all you need.”
– Marcus Aurelius
In the above quote, he writes what he believes is all you need. Objective judgment, unselfish action, and willing acceptance– all right now, “at the very moment.” That is a tall order, but one that you can continue to work toward day in and day out. Over time, you’ll find that you get lost in the pain of unnecessary suffering less often and that you are much more able to see what is happening with objectivity and without judgment.
Applying “It Is What It Is” to Your Daily Life
It can be tempting to use “it is what it is” as an excuse to not take control over the things that you can change.
Your car ran out of gas? It is what it is. You didn’t pay the heating bill even though you have the means to do so? It is what it is.
As you can see, this isn’t a mentality that’s going to get you very far in life. While it is true that “it is what it is” when you run out of gas and that you will have to accept that reality in order to walk yourself down the highway and to the gas staying, it doesn’t mean that you are fated to this outcome time and time again.
This is because you can control what (if any) lesson you extract from the situation. Maybe you learned that your gas meter is a little off or that you simply pushed it a little too far. Either way, in the future, you can make sure you fill up your tank before you enter that long stretch of highway without a gas station.
“Submit to the fate of your own free will.”
– Marcus Aurelius
So, “it is what it is” isn’t an acceptable excuse for not doing what you can to make the most of your own life. It isn’t an excuse to expect that everything is fated, so there’s no reason to do anything anyway.
The point is to recognize the cost of your impressions about events that are outside of your control and to look at reality at every opportunity objectively.
“It’s the great soul that surrenders itself to fate, but a puny degenerate thing that struggles.”
– Seneca the Younger
The truth is we are all dealt certain cards in life. We might be born rich, and we might be born poor, we might be born into a loving family, and we might be born into an abusive family. We might grow up in the U.S., Britain, Australia, Iraq, or Argentina.
“Remember that you are an actor in a play, playing a character according to the will of the playwright—if a short play, then it’s short; if long, long. If he wishes you to play the beggar, play even that role well, just as you would if it were a cripple, a honcho, or an everyday person. For this is your duty, to perform well the character assigned you. That selection belongs to another.”
We can use “it is what it is” to help us understand and accept the circumstances into which we were born and the cards we were dealt. We can use it as a way to look reality right in the eye and then move on to what we can control. Once we have the grounded foundation of an understanding and peace with reality, that’s when we can really bite into those things we have power over.
“It Is What It Is” Quotes
“It is what it is” is a sentiment that is not unique to the 20th and 21st centuries. It is an idea that has appeared over and over again with different words conveying the idea of accepting reality.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.”
– The Serenity Prayer
“One good thing about the past is that you can’t change it. So there’s no reason to go back. It’s there. It is what it is. The only thing you can change is right now and what’s happening next.”
– Neil Young
“Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.”
– Joseph Conrad
“We look at the world through our likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, opinions and judgments. We want everyone to behave as we think they should; otherwise we get agitated. But we are here to accept the world as it is, even as we work to make it better.”
– Eknath Easwaran
“Change the changeable, accept the unchangeable, and remove yourself from the unacceptable.”
– Denis Waitley
“You say, ‘The country is messed up.’ That’s like cursing the soil and the seed and the sunshine and the rain, which is all you’ve got. Don’t curse all you’ve got. When you get your own planet, you can rearrange this whole deal. This one you’ve got to take like it comes.”
– Jim Rohn
“That’s what I mean by radical truth. I mean accepting reality.”
– Ray Dalio
“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”
– Joseph Campbell
“Truth is the only safe ground to stand on.”
– Elizabeth Cady Stanton
“When you struggle against this moment, you’re actually struggling against the entire universe. Instead, you can make the decision that today you will not struggle against the whole universe by struggling against this moment. This means that your acceptance of this moment is total and complete. You accept things as they are, not as you wish they were in this moment. This is important to understand. You can wish for things in the future to be different, but in this moment you have to accept things as they are.”
– Deepak Chopra
“I accept reality and dare not question it.”
– Walt Whitman
Are you searching for more information about how to apply Stoicism to your daily life? Are you looking for quotes that will inspire and motivate you to make continual progress down a virtuous path? If so, don’t forget to check out our Stoic Quotes blog.
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