Posted by tylerbleeker
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.
Posted by tylerbleeker
I just moved back to Grand Rapids. I haven’t lived in this city for nearly four years, since the time I graduated college. In those intervening years I’ve lived in three different states and one country, but I’ve also lived in Michigan at my parent’s place in Zeeland as well. Though I’ve been back to Grand Rapids on many occasions for visits, I’ve never had the reason to call the city home again. Now, after a length of time away exploring other places, I’m back where I started—the same location I was as a fresh college grad looking to get out and explore the world.
Coming back to Grand Rapids wasn’t all that unexpected. I grew up, after all, in the far-flung suburban town of Zeeland. In between grad school, jobs, and travel, I’d always make it back to the small town my family calls home, and then immediately I’d make plans to visit the big city. To me, there’s a big difference between living in the town I grew up in and living in the town where I came of age. In reality, the physical distance between Zeeland and Grand Rapids isn’t very great—I have, more than once, biked between the two cities. Instead, it’s my personal associations with the two cities that constitute the realm of difference. Zeeland, to me, recounts a place of dependence, of conservatism, of childishness. Grand Rapids is where I went to college—the location of my coming of age, of my emergence into adulthood. Grand Rapids was the geographical context in which I began to understand myself and to shape myself as an individual, breaking from the mold in which I was raised. As a result, my perceived intellectual gulf between Zeeland and Grand Rapids is now as wide as it was back in high school—when I believed Grand Rapids was so far away that it required an overnight stay to visit.
Though I am back living in Grand Rapids for the moment, I’m not back in town indefinitely. I’m even hesitant to say that my projected tenure in the city—a mere two months—really even constitutes moving back. Very soon I’ll be leaving town again for the latest stage in life exploration. But even though this current move is rather fleeting, it came with an intentional purpose: I had to get back to the environment where I found I have thrived.
Is it just the physical geography of the city that lures me back? Is it that I know the landscape, the street patterns, the stores, and the bus routes? Is it that my social network is still based primarily out of this city? That I still have friends and connections living here? Could it be my associations with the past that continually draw me back in? That I have become educated, made lifelong friends, and found my independence here?
Undoubtedly, it’s a little of all of these things. Michigan, my birth state, is the place I’m most familiar with. But the most formative years of young adulthood took place in a city different than where I grew up. On a psychological level, familiarity breeds liking. And it’s no doubt I cherish Michigan and Grand Rapids simply because I’ve spent so much time here. But my connection to the city is so much more than that.
In the years I’ve been gone from the city, life for its inhabitants has gone on like it necessarily does. The relics of my time here have largely been consumed in the metabolism of the city. New people inhabit the house I lived in. Different patrons frequent the spots I hung out in. Grand Rapids has continued to grow and change, and though the culture remains largely the same, the city I left upon graduation has drifted ever so imperceptibly in character. Friends that I had in the city have either moved away—or moved on. I myself—I can’t deny that I’ve changed as well. So much time travelling and having new experiences has shaped who I am. Though I’m returning, it’s a different person coming back to the city as well.
Despite all the differences, things are enough of the same. I still know my way around this city. I can still find the nearest grocery store and I can still make a living. I still even know a little bit about cultural events that go on here. And though I lament all those who have moved away and changed, I still have many friends in the city. I still have those residual social connections that I formed when I used to live here—connections formed from investments in the past. It’s a network found only here that I really just don’t have anywhere else.
Moving back to Grand Rapids temporarily as I am, I’m here to see returns on investments I’ve already made in the city. Unlike my past few years of constantly moving to new places where I have no connections made at all, I’m looking forward to living in a place where I have networks already in place. This was a conscious decision, after all. I needed to move back to a place where I wasn’t a stranger. I needed to be where I could see the benefits of my past involvements and also know that time spent is not spent in vain.
There’s something about the old wisdom that in order to realize how much you love a place, you need to leave it and return again. After my years away, I’ve found, as I suspected when I left, that someday I’d want to return again to Grand Rapids. And though my stay this time is only temporary, I rightly suspect that I’ll keep coming back to this city many times. To come, as it may be, back to where I started.