It is what it is – but what is it?

The promise of a certainty beyond all the uncertainty

One of the sayings that I’ve heard most often in the last two years is said with a sigh or a shrug of the shoulders: ‘it is what it is’.

I’ve heard my friends and workmates saying it. I’ve found myself saying it.

But if you think about it, it’s a deeply pessimistic saying. It has an air of resignation about it. It is what it is, no more and no less. It can’t be changed. We just have to live with it. You couldn’t see it coming, and there’s nothing you can do. No point crying. It is what it is.

And if a saying like that is a symptom of a cultural mood, then it signals that we’ve found hope hard to come by of late.

That’s no surprise. You might be forgiven, as we approach the end of this particular lap of sun, for giving up on hope.

Just a few days ago, Stan Grant wrote wistfully of the Christmases of his childhood. These were Christmases shaped by the deep Christian faith and activism of his Indigenous uncles and aunties, full he says, of prayer and hope.

Today, Stan says, something has been lost. He writes, somewhat gloomily:

“There is little transcendence, just inherent pessimism and hopelessness”.

We’ve all been faced with the stark truth of our ignorance.

Simple optimism has lost its credibility in the face of brute reality. You can’t just jolly people along anymore by claiming that grey skies are gonna clear up. Who could say for sure what the next year will hold?

We’ve all been faced with the stark truth of our ignorance. We human beings don’t know as much about the future as we think we do. Part of living as a creature on this here planet is realising that we have more mystery than mastery.

We do not know what virus or tornado or disease or fire or mishap or human incompetence or human malevolence or even just a simple gust of wind is just around the corner.

You pessimists have been saying this for years, I guess, but we optimists have found this hard to take.

And we’re all weary of uncertainty, tired of having our plans unravelled, exhausted from the world seeming to have narrowed, by turns frustrated and anxious.

So what are we to do with the unpredictable?

Part of living as a creature on this here planet is realising that we have more mystery than mastery.

Without certainty, all we are left with is the tiring business of managing risk. The best we can do is calculate the odds of disaster and ask ourselves if we are willing to accept them. We’ve been asked to do this in the past two years with a bluntness that is chilling: are you willing to bet your life, and the lives of those you love, on a 1 in a 100 chance? 1 in 10,000? 1 in a million?

Still: wise though it is to manage what risks we can, we cannot manage them all. We do not have the machines that can do it. And anyway: how can I accept any odds when I only have one life to lose? We simply cannot know enough or prepare enough or keep our children safe enough. There are some things for which no dollar value will be enough to provide insurance. There are times when to say ‘it is what it is’ is cold comfort indeed.

But if managing risk is all we have in the face of uncertainty, it is no wonder we are in the midst of an epidemic of anxiety, and that we helicopter-parent our children.

How can I accept any odds when I only have one life to lose?

This is where I think we ought to look again at the story of Jesus. The story of Jesus unfolds from the beginning of time itself, is a promise that the creator God himself is at work in the unfathomable complexity of all things to bring about his perfect peace – so vividly depicted by the prophet Isaiah, as the lion lying down with the lamb. He is the One who wrought order and beauty out of the chaos of nothingness, and who redeems a nation of slaves, and who gives life to the dead.

In the birth of the baby, born as the angel says, ‘to save his people from their sins’ he enters right into the messiness of human affairs – there to break the back of evil and to bear upon himself the consequence owing to us, bearing our griefs and carrying our iniquities.

This is a light that cynicism and pessimism have never extinguished. This is a hope that cannot be erased.

While as yet the Christmas story does not take away our experience of uncertainty in the world, it is the promise of a certainty beyond all the uncertainty.

True: the world is what it is, COVID-19 and all; but that is not all there is. For Christmas is what it is, too. Jesus is who he is: God with us, the one who saves us from our sins, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of all.

Michael Jensen is Rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point.