Monthly Archives: July 2017

Friends of Circumstance, Friends of Intention

Social Networks

 

In an era of social networks, the word ‘friend’ is used pretty casually to describe the mere association of different people in the same social circles. Think, for example, about how many ‘friends’ you have on social media. But even before the advent of Facebook, the word friend was used loosely in everyday conversation. “Hello, friend,” is used as a welcoming but generic greeting. Losing an acquaintance in a public place, you would describe them to others as your ‘friend’ rather than your ‘stranger.’ Even in a group of people you don’t really know, outsiders would refer to you collectively as a group of ‘friends.’ Regardless of how close people are to each other emotionally, it is still the more polite thing to refer to each other as a friend rather than a more categorically appropriate word: acquaintance, colleague, co-worker, housemate, to name a few. Since the level of your friendship with those in your social network varies according to the situation, doesn’t it also make sense to describe those particular friendships with more diverse terminology?

According to one theory I’ve been told about, people only have enough emotional capacity to be close to 8 different people at any given time. This group of eight would then comprise your close friend circle. Would that mean everyone else is a non-friend? An acquaintance? A near friend? If it is true that only a limited number of people can ever be among your close friends, then how many of these people are in that circle based on the unanticipated circumstances of your life, and how many are from your own intentional keeping of them as a friend?

As an introverted person, I tend to prefer a smaller friend circle anyway, with those few being the ones that I know most intimately. I just don’t go out and seek to be in the company of strangers very often— it’s out of my comfort zone to do that. I find it incredibly difficult to go anywhere on my own time, hang out with unfamiliar people, and come back with some new friends. In order for me to really interact with strangers, I need some sort of external driver to be the reason behind our initial interactions. Essentially, I need to be forced into socialization. I find it nearly inconceivable for me to go up to someone unsolicited and tell them I’m interested in getting to know them (not unlike all those stories of walking up to a stranger at the bar). Instead, most people in my extended social circle come from external situations where it was first necessary to spend time with them in the first place. In college, those circumstances included being in the same dorm, classes, or clubs. In post-graduate life, those situations come from work, rental arrangements, or the combination of the two (especially since I often live at work). These situations and activities often provide the impetus for the initial social interaction with the people I have in turn gotten to know.

With all of these external situations, you don’t really get much choice with who you end up with. For school assignments or dorm placements, the choice is made by the professor or college administration. For employment, it is your supervisor, not you, who chooses your co-workers. Fortunately for me, I find I can work fairly well with just about anyone, whether it be performing job duties or sharing communal living arrangements. As colleagues, we might even do some stuff that is beyond just work or business. Together, for instance, we might hang out, travel some places, or do some fun activities on our time off. But our primary interactions will still come from our assigned duties or daily chores, and most of my conversation in this arena will revolve around practical logistics rather than casual chit-chat. In any case, when performing these required duties we do get to know each other a little bit better each time we interact, and gradually the relational bond between us is strengthened. We become closer from the sake of familiarity and congeniality in our shared circumstances. We might, and probably will, even refer to each other as ‘friends’.

But are all these friendships purely circumstantial, or is there more substance of intention behind them? While personally I can find it easy to be close to people in the moment, I wonder how much of our closeness is due to our circumstances of required proximity and how much is due to our mutual desire to be with each other?

Hence my classification of friends into friendships of circumstance versus friendships of intention. To test this classification and find out if a particular friendship is intentional or not, the experiment is to see what happens to the relationship once the mechanism that initially brought you together passes. It might be that the semester ends, you move housing, or you switch to a new job. Do the people you grew close to in your old situations still remain close? Or, since there is nothing external to force you to interact together anymore, do you slowly drift apart?

Even if a friendship was determined to be more circumstantial in nature, it is far from a negative thing. I have many friends of circumstance everywhere I go. These people are extremely important—invaluable, in fact, to daily life. These friends of circumstances are the folks in your social circle whom you interact with on a day to day basis. Just because these friendships may have developed through required interactions doesn’t mean they aren’t meaningful or authentic. These friends of circumstance are the ones who are there for you throughout the average day, providing many critical roles. They are there to shoot the breeze and provide banter. They are also sometimes there to vent to and debrief with, to console you or to give a hug. But the distinctive thing about the friend of circumstance is that they change quite readily. Whenever people come or go, there are always new faces to fill the important role of this type of friend. The rapidity that people come in and out of your life, especially in transient circles, does not negate the impact that these friends may have on you. A short time together can mean a lot. The circumstantial beginnings of these friendships do not reduce the pain and difficulty in saying goodbye either. Though former friends of circumstance may linger in active memory for a while after parting ways, all too quickly they are relegated to an inactive part of your distant memory.

The friend of intention is different though. Friendships of intention are based upon the two parties involved mutually agreeing to keep each other’s company after the circumstance that initially brought them together ends. It is the other person themselves that becomes the attraction for the friendship to continue. These friendships go deeper than just a superficial working relationship needed to get through the day. These relationships shift to getting to know the other person themselves, instead of just figuring out how to accomplish tasks together. Interactions with the friend of intention are imbued with meaning, rather than just a focus on output.

The friend of intention might stay a friend almost indefinitely, even after geographically parting ways. Maintaining the relationship looks a little bit different after you’re no longer in the situation that kept you externally connected. To some friends of intention, I write and receive letters. Other friends I make sure to visit when I’m in town. Still, I have some friends of intention who I don’t even interact with that often; yet, I know they are always there if I need them, no matter how long we go between interactions. These friendships of intention exist on a different level, and I have confidence in their security. Though much time may lapse between personal visits with these friends, spending time together feels like we’ve never really had much time apart.

Though I have had many friendships of circumstance, I never know when one might become something more. I, personally, have few friends of intention. And most, if not all, of these friends of intention started off as friends of circumstance. But somewhere along in the circumstance phase, we were able to go deeper and transcend that superficial relation. We began to see more in each other that compelled us to keep in touch. This deepening process takes time, though—a long time for me. It takes a while for me to warm up to other people, to accidentally discover interests we have in common and to form the small memories that we’ll share together in the future. Even then, it is difficult to tell if a friendship of intention is taking root. Will I come visit you in the distant future? Will I send you a piece of mail? Will I think of you in my head when we’re apart, wondering what it would be like if you were here as well?

Ever since college, I have made few new friends of intention. In those years, it’s been a transient lifestyle for me. The roots of an intentional friendship may begin to take hold, but all too early the roots are viciously cropped by the compulsion to move. How many of my former friends of circumstance could have become friends of intention if only the relationship was allowed to grow?

Whether by intention or just circumstance alone, individuals in either category are considered friends nonetheless. Though the depth and length of the particular friendship may vary, both my friends of circumstance and my friends of intention play an invaluable, though distinct, role in my life.

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Nantucket, the Faraway Land

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Rounding Brant Point at the shallow entrance to Nantucket Harbor

 

Thirty miles off the Northeastern seaboard of America lies a distant land, one that is removed to both time and mainstream American culture. On a clear day you can squint your eyes and barely make out the remote island over the horizon. The Wampanoag people, the ones who first inhabited these lands, named it ‘natockete’—the Faraway Land. Today, the island of Nantucket is easily accessible yet remains isolated by distance and culture; it remains the proverbial faraway land.

To get to Nantucket requires intention; no one ends up there on accident. The ferry ride from the mainland itself promotes the isolation, requiring over two hours to traverse the expansive Nantucket Sound. This distance and isolation has produced the distinct identity of the Nantucketer; native Nantucketers, when they seldom do go to the mainland, feel so removed from it that they refer to it as ‘going to America’. The island’s 48 square miles makes it insignificant in area, but the island makes up for its lack of size with its depth of character. Charming and quaint with its cobblestoned streets and rows of simple clapboard shanties, the Nantucket of today appears as an island forgotten in time. Yet, underneath this unassuming appearance lies a cosmopolitan society fueled by a multi-billion dollar tourism and real estate industry. Retreatants from all across the globe call this island a home, either permanently or seasonally. Yet, the island has resisted the global corporate commercialization seen on the mainland. There are no fast food restaurants here, and no superstores. The businesses and development on the island are unique and independent as the island and her inhabitants themselves.

 

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Nantucket town, with it’s modest buildings sheltered by street trees. The most dominant feature of the skyline is the Quaker Meetinghouse. Nantucket’s many wharves stretch into the harbor.

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Main Street Nantucket: rustic and cobblestoned, yet modern and full of traffic.

 

In terms of natural resources, Nantucket itself has little to offer. The island is a relic of the last ice age, merely a pile of sand in the ocean dumped by a glacier some 20,000 years ago and continually sculpted away by the sea. Incessantly battered by the ocean, the natural environment of the island remains fragile and the blanket of ocean fog that often shrouds Nantucket has earned her the nickname ‘Grey Lady of the Sea’. Nevertheless, the cryptic island still supported much life, including a complex human culture. For thousands of years, the Wampanoag people lived sustainably on the island in small groups called sachems. Five to six thousand years ago, rising tides from glacial meltwater cut off Nantucket from Cape Cod for good, creating the isolation needed for the distinct cultural identity of the original Nantucketers to develop.

European settlers to the Massachusetts Colony, off-put by the island’s isolation and lack of resources, initially passed over the Grey Lady. Eventually, however, the island’s isolation proved an allure as well, and the earliest English settlers came in 1641 to seek a reprieve from economic and social oppression on the mainland. Those early settlers tried subsistence farming and grazing like they had known in their home country, but agriculture and livestock grazing proved unsustainable and dramatically changed Nantucket forever. The native vegetation was stripped from the landscape, and the already poor soil was lost. Looking to maintain their fragile existence, these early Nantucketers turned to the sea for their salvation.

 

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A rooftop view of Nantucket town’s skyline

 

And the sea, though violent as it may be to the island itself, provided generously for the settlers of Nantucket. The coastal waters of the Atlantic were rich in fish resources, in turn supporting an abundance of whales. The ongoing industrial revolution created an insatiable demand for whale oil products, and Nantucket capitalized on its nautical location. Nantucket’s proximity to the sea, instead of the isolation due to it, provided an advantage as Nantucket reinvented itself as a whaling port. With the seas as the roads and the primary mode of transportation being sailing vessel in those days, even isolated settlements on the mainland were effectively islands at that time; being a physical island was not much more of a barrier. Though poor in natural resources, Nantucket could easily ship in whatever supplies they needed from the mainland—lumber, food, labor—all financed by the profits of the whale industry. By the mid-1700’s, Nantucket was a booming city with a population surpassing 8,000, as well as being the nationwide leader in whaling. Though awash in wealth from the whaling industry, the Quaker values of the Nantucket settlers shunned displays of opulence and prosperity. Instead, Nantucketers lived simply and constructed economical dwellings for themselves in a society subservient to both God and the whales. Astute businessmen, earnings from whaling were re-invested directly into the industry.

 

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Waterfront Property: modest houses built upon Old North Wharf in Nantucket Harbor

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The Old Mill: built in 1746 as a way to grind corn meal for provisioning ships

 

Eventually, Nantucket’s isolation began to lead to the demise of the island community. The success and monopoly of whaling for Nantucketers meant that whaling was the only industry in town. Serving as a whaler was a rite of passage for the islanders, and an insular culture around whaling practices developed. Nantucket whalers were distrustful of technological advances and nautical knowledge from others off the island, even as the traditional whaling industry as they knew began to decline. The overhunting of whales in Nantucket’s backyard, the Atlantic, led to the development of the Pacific whale fishery. To accommodate for longer voyages, the whaleships grew larger and more technologically advanced, and the shallow sandbar at the entrance of Nantucket Harbor eventually prevented these larger boats from docking in the Harbor. As a symbolic tragedy of the demise of Nantucket whaling, in 1820 the Nantucket whaleship Essex was sunk in the Pacific by a sperm whale—the gruesome tragedy that would inspire the novel Moby Dick. By the mid-1800’s, the whaling industry in Nantucket was in its death throes. Nantucketers stubbornly continued whaling with diminishing returns while the deeper mainland harbor in New Bedford, Massachusetts, with access to rail transportation became deeply profitable. Nantucket’s status as an island had once again become a liability. The last whaleship sailed out of Nantucket in 1845. Then, in 1846, a fire on Nantucket destroyed 40 acres of the town. A great depression fell over the island.  With little economic opportunity left, the people of Nantucket began a mass exodus. The island’s population plummeted to under a third of its whaling peak.

 

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The red house was owned by whaling captain George Pollard, the captain of the ill-fated Essex voyage. Though they occupied the highest rank on the island, captains nevertheless built simple dwellings for themselves.

 

Nantucket Island would spend the next many decades unadorned and steeping in its isolation. Not until the turn of the 20th century did it see signs of revival as an island. In the roaring decades of the early 1900’s, artists and actors from the mainland began to turn to Nantucket for summer retreats. Lured by its quaint charm and rustic beauty, celebrities and wealthy businessmen alike sought refuge on the island. By the 1950’s Nantucket had become a popular enough retreat that developers saw the economic potential of a resort community. However, fearing the loss of the town’s character, great efforts were made to preserve the historic architecture and rustic charm of the island that had attracted vacationers there in the first place. Nantucketers, ever resistant of trends on the mainland, fought for the preservation of their island’s history and culture, resisting the post-WWII re-development and commercialization that was ongoing on the mainland and neighboring rival Martha’s Vineyard as well. Their efforts preserved the downtown core of Nantucket town and its outskirts, making it today the best-preserved pre-civil war era town in America.

Nantucket town today remains a maze of narrow streets densely populated with simple clapboard houses and sheltered by street trees. Main Street—the main commercial drag—is wide and cobblestoned, lined by old brick buildings, and leads straight down to Straight Wharf—one of the town’s many links to the sea. The sea is still the lifeblood of this island community, only today the harbor is frequented more by pleasure craft than by whaleboats. Outside of Nantucket town, the island is rural and rustic. Scraggly forests, instead of cookie-cutter suburbs, fill the isolated interior. On the fringes of the island, quaint shanty villages like ‘Sconset give off the forgotten seaside town aura. Today, more than 10,000 people call Nantucket home year-round, a number surpassing even the zenith of the whaling-era population. Though the island’s residents swell to over 50,000 in the brief summer months, the pace of life feels relaxed nonetheless.

 

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On the easternmost edge of Nantucket Island is the Sankaty Head Lighthouse. The waves continually erode away the island, forcing the relocation of the lighthouse in 1997.

 

I recently spent four days on Nantucket Island, exploring the island’s corners by bike. On a small island, there is nothing quite like exploration by bicycle, taking the slow route to the island’s fringes. Being on Nantucket, something inexpressible grips you. It’s a place you’ve been that’s like no other. Something on the island beckons you, drawing you in. Is it the salty air, the foggy mornings? Is it the predominance of the ocean, with the waves and the surf? Is it that the pace of life seems slower here? Unlike its rival island Martha’s Vineyard, there is not much human entertainment found on the island. Yet, in my time ashore, I found the days to be packed full of sights and sounds. The ocean beaches, the stars at night, they are the things that filled the time in all their gloriousness. Those four days seemed to stretch into an eternity yet flew by all too quickly.

Many people visit Nantucket each year, from all corners of the globe. The island—its mystique and aura—seems to leave an irreversible impression. Something about time spent on the island seems of a different caliber. For some, decades may pass between visits, yet Nantucket remains as a place near the surface of memory. The island always beckons you back. When you return, the enchantment of the island overpowers you once again. Nantucket whispers “forget about the mainland. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Linger for a spell, if only for this short while.”

 

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The former Surf Lifesaving Station in Surfside. No longer used for saving lives, the station has been converted into a youth hostel.

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The southernmost settlement on Nantucket, the small burg of Surfside, often covered in the misty morning ocean fog that shrouds the Grey Lady