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It is what it is!

I hear this phrase slipped into conversation with great regularity. It could be seen as an expression of noble acceptance. It could be a kind of irresponsible fatalism. It could be an attempt to distance ourselves from uncomfortable realities. It could just be lazy thinking.


Ten thousand children die from malnutrition somewhere in the world every day. It is what it is.


We are very probably among the wealthiest 5% of people on the planet (and not realise it). It is what it is.


20% of the Amazon rainforest has already been destroyed and a further 200,000 acres is burned every day. It is what it is.


People of minority ethnic backgrounds still often suffer from the prejudices of our forebears. It is what it is.


This week some politicians in Westminster have been saying that sometimes it need not be what it is. A cross-party alliance is building to reject the government’s plan to reduce this year’s foreign aid budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%, a move designed to help cover pandemic costs. In terms of the UK budget, it is a drop in the ocean. In hard cash that is £4 billion which could, for example, guarantee access to education for tens of thousands of girls world-wide. The vote is next week and there is a real chance it could succeed. Some Conservative politicians plan to put conscience before party allegiance.


Meanwhile in Jerusalem another group of politicians is saying that it is what it need not be. A motley group drawn from various parties is trying to end Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year hold on power. Some of them at least are more sympathetic to the interests of Palestinians and seek some sort of peaceful settlement. The chances of success here are probably fewer than in Westminster but this is a serious attempt at change after the recent outrages in Gaza.


How can what is change into what might be? This is not just a difficult political question. It arises in families and communities all the time. Do you quietly accept the foibles of a family member, friend or colleague – the irritating habits, the harsh judgements, the blind self-absorption – or do you sometimes call it out? Any attempt to challenge could go uncomfortably wrong. And so perhaps we let the moment pass. It is what it is, we tell ourselves. We don’t want to make a fuss or ride roughshod over people’s feelings.


‘It is what it is’ is a crude and very partial reworking of that prayer which you often see on posters and fridge magnets: ‘God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things which cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other’.


These are the words of a German-American thinker called Reinhold Niehbur who died 50 years ago last Tuesday on June 1. Most people will never have heard of him despite his many books and articles. But this one sentence has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous as an official epigram and can be found framed on the walls of many living rooms. Grace, courage, wisdom. Accept, change, distinguish. It can be a big ask, for any of us.


Niehbur believed that sometimes it is what it need not be. To accept things as they are or to strive for change. That’s our dilemma. It is what it is.

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