The young woman sitting across from me at the Italian restaurant flaunted her knowledge.... And while all of her regurgitated ideas were quite thought-provoking, I found myself studying her instead of what she said.
She's younger than I am—in her early twenties—and yet she exuded so much arrogance. Just because I don't have my Bachelor's Degree, she kept throwing it in my face. "Elisa, I know you don't have the same education that I do, but I hope you're following everything that I'm saying. Tell me to slow down when you need me to. Feel free to ask questions when you think it's appropriate."
And at one point, I wanted to slam my coffee on the table between us and shout, "You have no idea what I know, or what I've been through." But I remained outwardly calm for a time, listening to the barrage of information I assumed this woman had likely never applied in real life.
"You should study transhumanism!" she squealed. "Oh, but of course, you haven't taken the background classes on humanism itself—so you can't correctly judge such an ideology." She tapped her painted nails on her coffee cup, then looked away as if grieving the fact that I wasn't smart enough to talk with.
"What a pity that you haven't had more of an education," she suddenly went on. "You're older than me and yet you have so much to learn about the value we each put on life, about humanity as a whole…. You have yet to understand the driving forces behind our political system, what truly makes us equal, whether destiny, fate, or even predestination, really exist!"
Coffee nearly spewed from my mouth, being so taken aback by her words. "Oh, and YOU know all of these things?" I asked.
"I've graduated with honors."
"I appreciate that we've become friends…" I paused. "But I don't appreciate some of the recent comments you've made about my intellect…" She appeared shocked. "Let me explain something to you—just because you have an education, that does not make you better than someone else."
"But if they have less of an education than I do, that means I've learned more than they have. And…knowledge IS power."
"School is wonderful, but without truly applying what you've learned—" I began saying before she interrupted me.
"I'm applying it right now," she said.
"Fine, you're all about the human condition. What's the meaning of life?"
"Sharing knowledge with others," she said rather quickly.
"How about learning from others?" I asked.
"Those who are educated."
I couldn't help but laugh. "Listen, neither one of us are very old, but I've been through a hell of a lot—and I've learned every step of the way. And for you to sit here and act like you're God's gift—it's really getting to me."
"But, Elisa—" Her lips turned downward sadly. "I'm trying to help you."
"I have a long way to go—but I think I've done a pretty great job learning without your help!"
She scoffed—visibly upset that I'd quit being perpetually sweet. That's when I couldn't hold my thoughts in any longer.
"I learned more from a homeless man on the streets of Hawaii, than I've ever learned from any university professor. Do you know what it's like to be homeless? To sit on a corner wondering when you'll get your next meal? To cry, thinking you can't possibly survive, but you don't want to make a collect call to your parents and admit to them that you were wrong; you don't want to crawl back to everyone where you grew up, hoping they'll forgive you—even though you're unmarried AND pregnant…. So you sit on the streets, and some damn stranger comes up and tells you about life, about how you can find kindness in the strangest places. How we all have stories—we'll all suffer pain and loss, but what makes life worth it—what gives it meaning—is when people are kind and that kindness strikes the core of us! That elderly, homeless man—albeit dirty and haggard—showed me the type of selfless kindness I'll never forget."
She stared gape-jawed, and I continued on.
"Have you ever lost a child? Held them in your arms and watched them take their last breath because even though you wanted them to live more than anything, you knew they were in pain—and the best choice you could make was the exact opposite of what you wanted more than anything? I wanted my kid to live—but the selfless choice—the humane choice was to let him die. No book could give me that experience. No philosophy course could make me completely 'feel' that concept. I innately knew what was the right choice! Most people don't know what they'd do in that situation, but I do!"
She shook her head, obviously stunned by my past.
"Have you ever loved someone so much, you thought that love would last to the end of time? You thought the two of you could take on the world and nothing could throw you. Had five kids—FIVE—only to learn that love wasn't what you'd hoped? People are flawed, they're utterly human—and utterly finite. And maybe the only person you should have trusted was God because what you learned was that you couldn't even trust yourself.
"Did you learn any of that from your books, your political classes, your humanity and philosophy teachers? Did that education also give you the experiences that taught you what REAL life is like? I may not have the education that you have, but I've lived and know a heck of a lot more than you'd like to give me credit for."
I stood up in that gorgeous restaurant, slapped some cash on the table and began to walk out. The bell on the front door rang as I grabbed the brass handle.
"Elisa!" she called out from the table. "Wait, Elisa. Please don't go!"
Seriously? Hadn't I just completely lost my temper? Why did she still want to talk with me? I fisted my hands and slowly pivoted on the balls of my feet. "What?"
Tears trailed down the base and blush on her cheeks. "Can you come back?"
I walked back, then simply stood by the table, wondering what she would possibly say.
"Elisa, I owe you an apology." And that young woman proceeded to tell me how she acts like everything's fine, when it's not. Kids used to call her stupid because her mother died when she was in grade school and she started struggling to focus in classes after that. "Everyone thought I was so dumb," she sobbed. "I've fought with everything in me to do well in school—to learn. To be worth something."
I sat down, and after a moment, we both had tears in our eyes.
The conversation that unfolded after that was life-changing. I learned, once again, that you can never guess what someone else has been through. I judged her quite harshly, assuming she'd never had any trials, yet she'd lost her mother—a loss I can't even comprehend. And she'd worked so hard to learn for reasons I never would have guessed, wearing her education as a badge of honor to make her feel significant.
"I owe you an apology, too. I'm sorry for judging you. You're amazing," I said at the end of the conversation. "Education, experiences…all of that aside. The choices you've made—and who you've become. Heck, even the way you handled this situation today, asking me to come back to the table… You know, you're all right."
We both smiled through tears, and I thought once again, the meaning of life for me really is to learn from others, and to try a little harder to be kind--even when it isn't the easy choice.