Rambling Man: On Staying Friends When Financial & Other Circumstances Diverge
Dear Rambling Man,
I met “Gilgamesh” (not her real name) several years ago when we were both graduate students at the same university. I was in the first year of my Ph.D., and Gilgamesh was in the last year of her M.Sc. degree. Gilgamesh and I bonded over the fact that we were different than most of our peers: both of us were in long-term relationships, had families living far away, and were not married to our degrees and enjoyed fun activities outside of the lab. Gilgamesh started a Ph.D. degree about a year after we met. Around the same time, I quit my Ph.D. and struggled through several months of unemployment before landing on my feet at an entry-level job in an industry with growth potential. Both Gilgamesh and I got married in the last few years. We were bridesmaids in each other’s weddings, and best friends the rest of the time.
Gilgamesh’s Ph.D. started off well but eventually turned sour. She needed to travel far from home for long periods of time to collect data, and her relationship with her advisor turned toxic. Flash forward to now: she is 5 years in with no signs of finishing. She has gotten into numerous fights with her advisor and her university’s administration over bureaucratic issues, which has caused a lot of stress. Meanwhile, my entry level job turned into a fantastic career, and it seems as though Gilgamesh and I are on opposite trajectories. She is stressed, unhappy, and unhealthy, whereas I am fulfilled, happy, and considering starting a family.
Needless to say, our relationship is not great. We were once best friends, and we’re now at a point where we haven’t spoken in a few months. Gilgamesh complains that I am not a supportive friend, although I disagree. I have always been there for her during academic and personal crises, but Gilgamesh is resistant to any practical advice. She doesn’t want solutions to her problems; she wants to wallow and have everyone pity her.
In particular, Gilgamesh takes offence at the fact that in the last year I had to cancel on two social engagements with her on short notice because of illness. I apologized profusely and tried to reschedule, but Gilgamesh launched into a tirade about how I don’t understand what it’s like to not have money and I’m not a good friend. WTF, Rambling Man! Gilgamesh is aware of my salary as she once asked and I told her, but other than this, I have never discussed my personal finances with her. I’m not the kind of person that suggests expensive restaurants and activities. I don’t think Gilgamesh’s criticism is fair, but at the same time, I don’t see the point in calling her out on this as I know her life is stressful enough. My solution has been to retreat from the friendship and live my own life.
Rambling Man, I’d like to say that I’m unhappy with events, but truly, I am not. I am relieved not to have to justify everything to a judgmental friend, and I feel as though we are in different life phases and no longer have anything in common. Our lives, careers, and interests have all diverged. I feel guilty about how things have ended up, but mainly because I feel pity for Gilgamesh. I want to help her, but how do you help someone that won’t help themselves? Am I an awful person for not wanting her to be in my life?
A Bad Friend?
The fact that you call your friend Gilgamesh, after confusing me initially, since Gilgamesh was a dude, made me go back and look over “The Epic of Gilgamesh” again. It is one of the many things that I read in college and remember just enough of to allude to once in a while, but not enough to say what the hell really happens.
The only two parts that I could remember with certainty were the part where Gilgamesh walks through a dark tunnel for 24 hours, which is narrated in super-boring real time; and the part where Gilgamesh goes to the bottom of the ocean to get a plant that will grant him renewed youth, and he ties stones to his feet to walk around down there and ends up saying stuff, hanging out a long time, and generally doing things you can’t do underwater, and there’s never any explanation of how he pulls that off, except that he is two thirds god and one third human, which, from a genealogical perspective, doesn’t even make sense.
But really, Gilgamesh is about the vagaries of friendship and the futility and unpredictability of life. The epic starts out with Gilgamesh oppressing his people for no particular reason. To stop this, the gods create a guy who is strong enough to fight Gilgamesh, and who does fight him, but then ends up becoming best friends with him and getting adopted by his goddess mom. So the gods’ plan works, but not because Gilgamesh is deposed or shamed by defeat into recognizing the error of his ways. He meets a fun new friend and gets distracted.
Then they go have an awesome adventure and kill an ogre, pretty much just to say that they did, and come back on a boat, carrying awesome, enormous trees that they use to make a sweet new gate for their city of Uruk. They also bring the ogre’s head. They are best buddies and everything seems great, plus Gilgamesh has been away and thus, unable to oppress his people.
Then, for no particular reason, Gilgamesh’s pal dies from persistent bad dreams. This makes Gilgamesh very unhappy and he goes off to live in the wild, where he ultimately goes on two failed quests for eternal life before heading back to his city where, after all that, he feels glad to be home.
Why have I recited all this? Because “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is considered to be humanity’s first great work of literature, and it makes no damn sense. A guy mistreats his own people and he ends up getting an awesome friend made just for him. He goes on a harrowing quest for eternal life and ends up getting scolded by the only person who has eternal life, who tells him he should stop worrying about living forever and appreciate what he has.
He finally finishes his failed quest and has this warm moment, feeling thankful simply to lay eyes on the good old walls of Uruk, and you want to be like, “See, Gilgamesh? It’s better to enjoy the simple things instead of going crazy searching for perfection.” Except that the whole reason this all started was because he was abusing his own people. Nothing is simple. It’s hard ever to say that someone is merely “a bad friend” or “a good friend.”
Is your Gilgamesh being unduly rotten to you? Probably. But that is the nature of going through a hard time. If ancient Gilgamesh accidentally bumped into someone while he was in the middle of his 24 hours of dark tunnel walking, you’d best believe he wouldn’t have been like, “Oh, sorry, my bad.”
In fact, when he got out of the tunnel and went to see the ferryman who would take him across the sea to the guy with eternal life, the first thing ancient Gilgamesh did was destroy the stone giants who lived with the ferryman — for no reason! — only to find out that those giants would have carried him across the sea. But the ferryman probably recognized that ancient Gilgamesh, like your Gilgamesh, was going through a lot of stuff, so he just told him to go chop down a bunch of trees to make a raft.
We can’t all have the patience of Urshanabi the ferryman. In fact, if Gilgamesh and Urshanabi had repeated interactions and Gilgamesh kept wrecking stuff for no reason, it’s safe to suppose that Urshanabi would have stopped returning Gilgamesh’s text messages at some point. So it is with you and your Gilgamesh. If you can muster the calm to recognize that her nastiness is likely the product of her situation and let it all roll over you, that is good. But if you can’t, that’s OK too.
Here’s the thing: at first, I thought that in the modern-day epic of your friend Gilgamesh, you were Enkidu, the rival created by the gods who became a good friend. But now I think you are Uruk-the-sheepfold, Gilgamesh’s long-suffering hometown.
When Gilgamesh was a cruel tyrant, Uruk endured him until it couldn’t anymore, and then it called on the gods for help. (It also bears mentioning here that when the gods first created Enkidu to beat Gilgamesh, he was covered in hair and unrefined like a beast, and it was the people of Uruk who took him in secretly and refined him into a suitable man. So Uruk was not entirely passive; in fact it took a role in its own salvation.) When Gilgamesh returned from killing an ogre and gave Uruk feasting and a beautiful new gate, the little city enjoyed the good times. And when Gilgamesh, in his anguish over Enkidu’s death, went off to walk through tunnels and smash stone giants and all that mess, Uruk kept on keepin’ on without the moody king.
That’s where you’re at now: Gilgamesh is in the wilderness, and you’re right where you’ve always been, doing what you need to do. You plainly don’t need Gilgamesh, and she’s not in a position to be there for you. In the mean time, don’t burn any bridges. Keep her at arms’ length if you need to, but remember that she is struggling and don’t cast her away for good. Perhaps at some point, after a serpent steals the spiny eternal youth plant that she got from the ocean, Gilgamesh will emerge from her travails at your gates, humbled and happy to see you again. If that happens, you should let her in.
Rambling Man is the Billfold’s new advice column about trying to make a living and doing the best you can. Questions for Rambling Man? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line: Rambling Man.