Kierkegaard Responds to the Classifieds by Sam Spurlock

“It is what it is”—I hated that phrase, to me it meant nothing. But to her those words had magical powers of explanation, they were a shorthand philosophy. A way to make sense of the world, shrink it to something that might be grasped and held onto with all of the strength and stamina she possessed.

Those words, they were accessible. Simple. Clean and honest.

They said what they needed to say and nothing more. To her they encapsulated generations of wisdom and what she liked to call life experience. They gave her the power to accept certain truths, including those of her own invention; to reject certain truths as uncomfortable as wet wool stockings clinging to her legs at the bus stop on a rainy autumn afternoon. As bothersome as the laughter of strangers in a public place.

Laughter ringing into the air like bullets.

Laughter rushing out, willy-nilly, from the mouths of people she did not know; people laughing at something that was most certainly, in her mind, always at her expense.

These were words that had been harvested and preserved for use in almost any situation that was perhaps too complicated, too horrific, too close to her fears to be acknowledged; words to be used when she didn’t know what to say. Words that gave her something to fill in the air when the silence hung over her like a death shroud, when she felt threatened or attacked, when her defenselessness could be transformed into defensiveness.

This was her offense. Her playbook encapsulated in three words, save the repetition: “It is what it is.”

These words were always delivered with raised eyebrows and a nodding head, turning slowly from left to right and back again.

“It is what it is.”

One would perhaps expect that these words, when delivered in this manner, would have the opposite effect, really, of those Bobblehead dolls that have taken up residence on the dashboards of most cars in the neighborhood these days. But they don’t.

Like those bobbleheads nodding in agreement like your own private Yes-Man, encouraging your every thought, whim, purchase, answering your rhetorical questions with the same answer. Day in and out.

Instead, their effect is the same. “Life goes on,” they say. “You do you,” they say. “You only live once,” they say. “Live, laugh, love,” they say. “Go ahead and order the extra large.” “It’s totally fine if you’re a little late.” “The Lord meant for this to be.” “Of course, there’s nothing that can be done.”

“Of course. It’s fate.”

Ad nauseum.


“It is what it is.”

These five words allowed her to tether her life to what she liked to call “the real world”—a place where, she would often insist, most of us do not live. For her, these words were infused with meaning and purpose: she liked them because they gave her a sense of control, a sense of territory.

Of turf.

Of where your problems begin and hers end.

An escape clause. A suicide pill. A get out of jail free card. An incantation to protect her from making choices while freeing her to judge yours.

And theirs. But her? So glad you asked. She. She had been saved. What should she worry?

“It is what it is.”

As smug as Julie Andrews fucking singing “Que sera, sera.”

No, wait. I’m wrong. Wrong movie. That was Doris Day. Still, you get my point, right?

Whatever you do, don’t nod back at me. Not today. Because it’s not what it isn’t.

Don’t give me a high-five.

Or an A-Fucking-Men.

No daps, please. Don’t “like” this on Facebook. Just give me a moment. I’m seething in my own embarrassment and indignation. She is my mother. I am her only daughter. And yet, nothing I can ever say will persuade her to change her ways. To realize that these words, the ones that she tosses out, like lifejackets cast into the sea to those thrown overboard from a cruise ship by one catastrophe or another, one hardship or loss, one perfect storm, one accidental confluence of circumstances not of their choosing where all that was solid melted into air are incapable of rescuing or saving those whom they target.

Where there was a need—to be heard or to have pain or suffering, or emptiness or longing, or perspective or loss acknowledged by another —the need remains deeper still.

These words do not convey love. They do not provide comfort. They do not propose solutions. They do not offer acceptance. They do not heal.

They're like salt in a wound.

They are salt in my wounds and when I hear the words the wounds reopen. Again.

Her words—which mean nothing to me and everything to her—her words rush into my ears and bore into my brain until I'm no longer listening to anything else she’s saying. Her words whittle my critical listening skills down from something that resembles the fabled tree of knowledge into a sharply-pointed stick. Her words erode my patience into a slippery patina, like a rock that has long borne the eroding force of the water rushing over its back. Her words unravel my empathy and knit my brow.

Her words succeed as they fail.

This is not the first time that my adult self has longed for her to offer comfort and support and come up wanting. To have pain and hurt summarily rejected and dismissed without a pause for thought.

Imagine calling 911 to report an emergency and having the dispatcher hang up on you.

Her response is as automatic as the synthesized voice at the other end of the line when you call a 1-800 number for customer assistance to find a prerecorded set of options designed to dispense with your problems as efficiently and instrumentally as possible.

“Press one for balance inquiries.” This account is definitely in the red.

And yet, you expect a different response each time. You want to speak with a human being, someone who will go off-script and address the specifics of your dilemma. You just want to be validated, to know that you’re not merely a fork in a flowchart of predetermined responses.

My inner child stammers, her face flushed, with furrowed brow, pursed lips, downcast eyes; she shifts her weight from one foot to the other, her body acting out her mind’s attempt to find balance and stability where most children expect to find a firm foothold.

Or the safety net of a protective embrace.

“Kiddo, it’s the same as it ever was.”

Another self-effacing bumper sticker slogan of happy horseshit masquerading as sage advice echoes back from the depths of your memory equal parts insult and gut-wrenching platitude.

“A penny for your thoughts?” Indeed.

In her economy, your currency is worthless. While she was busy saving for her own future, you were busy borrowing to invest in your own.

Your Ph.D. in Rhetoric.

Your doctoral minor in anthropology.

Your graduate certificate in cultural studies.

Your undergraduate degrees in Communication and English.

You’ve spent most of your life accumulating the knowledge and experience required to paint language with the shades and tones of human experience to coax shape and form forward at the potter’s wheel of the imagination, to speak the Other with the disciplined grace of a conductor anticipating the next measure.

Words and ideas are your currency, you invest in well-formulated arguments and difficult questions.

You don’t have opinions about the Oxford Comma, French Spacing, or em dashes.

You dated MLA and married Chicago, but you’re still on speaking terms with APA. You read introductions.

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