How do you know what you know?

A bit of a cosmic question, perhaps, but useful. Each of us has ideas on how things should be, what life is like, and what we expect to happen.

We form these sets of facts from our earliest days. I cry and someone comes and I feel better. I cry and no one comes and I am alone. I am hungry and food appears and I eat. I am hungry and nothing happens.

It’s good to think of others’ needs. It’s good to take care of yourself first, because no one else will.

This framework, what we create as the fact of how life is, is foundational but not indelible. We grow; we see people who are different from ourselves; we begin to see that life isn’t uniform.

As we become older, what we do with that information becomes our own responsibility. We turn from stacking what we know as facts on top of each other as we construct our frames of reference to having the wherewithal, should we choose, to think beyond our own experience.

This is the fertile ground of learning.

I’m not talking about the who-did-what-when-and-why end of education, but the bigger picture of learning. How those names and dates are put into a context, understanding that no two people experience anything the same way.

Knowing that our understanding of the world isn’t universal — and recognizing, and accepting, that our way isn’t the only way, or even the best.

If we judge every situation only by our own experience, which is certainly easy to do, then life is a lot less complicated. But it’s a trap of self-involvement.

It’s also especially perilous when those in positions of power frame everything in those terms — when the argument against helping low-income families pay for child care is that I didn’t have that assistance, so you don’t need it either.

I had a hard life, so why shouldn’t you? I did it this way, so why do you think you know better?

The flip side — of privilege — can obscure empathy, too. And it can be just as difficult to understand.

I give presentations about disability as diversity in journalism, and several years ago I was speaking with a group of college students about how they would cover a news story: a woman who uses a wheelchair kept getting ticketed and fined by her town for traveling on the road shoulder because there were no sidewalks to use. The resident maintained that the tickets were unfair because she had no other option for getting around than to be in the road.

A student asked a simple question: Why didn’t the woman just take a cab? It would be easier and she wouldn’t get the tickets, which she should be getting because she was choosing to violate the law by being in the road. Take a cab! Problem solved!

It took me a second to realize she was serious.

But she was. It didn’t occur to her that a person couldn’t just take a cab, because cabs are expensive and not every cab is equipped to carry a person with a wheelchair. It’s not that simple — not everyone can afford to make a choice.

I don’t know that the student fully understood, even after we discussed it as a group.

But the seed was planted, that life stretches beyond our personal reach. It’s a lesson I think we all, myself included, can do more to remember.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Email her at and follow her on Facebook.