Testing Limits

UPDATE: 6/7/17
Accounts from people present on Sunday must come into play. Late in this blog, I suggest that the “protesters should not be dismissed as childish.” The photo above also implies these officials as proxy for the balance I describe. The new information indicates that undue force was used by the police – physical force, tear gas, rubber bullets. It indicates that once again, people of color among the counter-protesters were disproportionately on the receiving end. Injuries were not reported, but they occured. People were mistreated in the high strung anxiety of the scene.

Inform yourself. Read accounts like this one of a man who tried to leave when the racism got extreme. Read and stand up by calling for and living in rigirous integrity. In the balance in listening and clear assertion of social agreements and law that undergird civility and respect.

This role is not for the faint of heart. We don’t have time to be faint hearted. Our country requires that we stand up and assert our Mama Bear Love for the people and the planet.

In preschool children are redirected again and again to “use your words.”

Come on! Yes. You’re afraid. We all are. For a long time now we’ve been capable of blowing each other up. But we do have options. No matter your political perspective and passion, call on your inner Elder. You have it.

Either we grow up or we vaporize. The choice is ours.


For any of a range of reasons, children come to mistrust, or at least suspect, the capacity of their parents to protect them. Some of the reasons are completely understandable – feeling ignored, being in danger and having no big person around to help. We who have been parents know that, through intention or not, circumstances can lead kids to feel mistrustful. We also know that we mess up sometime.

Even here in the middle of adulthood, if we tell the truth, the extent we can trust remains a question – one we can carry throughout our lives. In the end, there is both horror and deep peace in realizing nothing can protect us from the fact that being born guarantees we will die. It’s just a matter of when and how.

Macabre as that may sound. It’s just so.

But back to the kids. Fundamentally, children are looking to see what the rules are. The only place they can look is outside themselves to the adults in their support system. These days in the United States, most children are raised in nuclear families. In support systems including primarily their parents. When public education came online, teachers began serving as major adult figures, as well. But parents retain most significance.

The point is, kids naturally test to see if the adult system is strong enough to retain its authority. To sustain what seems a reasonable and therefore comforting rule of law, while at the same time being true to social contract. Social contracts are agreements within families, and also within communities. They are ways that we interact with each other to retain a ground of peaceful every day existence. For example, stop signs. Or walking on a particular side of the sidewalk. We cover our mouths when we sneeze in public. And quiet a raucous moment when a funeral procession drives by. In social contracts, we tacitly or explicitly exchange some freedoms to retain the rights and wellbeing of the group.

So flash forward to June 4, 2017 in downtown Portland Oregon. Just nine days earlier on May 26 two young women had been riding one of Portland’s Max trains. One in hijab. A burly white man on the train became angry and red-faced, yelling at the girls.

His rant was focused on the girl in the hijab. Fuled by his fury with Muslims and Islam.

There were lots of other people on the train. Three of them white men who did not know each other. These three were near enough the girls to step forward in their defense. The red faced, angry man slit their throat’s and two of them died.

Later the attacker was arrested, and we all came to understand his association with white extremist organizations and sentiments. Already, Portland was bracing for two rallies feared to be associated with similar sentiments. One planned for this past Sunday, June 4, and the other for June 10. For a number of reasons you can review in media, the June 10 rally was cancelled, but the June 4 rally remained.

In our grief, fear and anger, Portland waited to see how things would come down. By Sunday at 2:00, nearly 250 people gathered in downtown Portland as planned. Their complaints were about the suppression of conservative voices, and the authoritarian liberalism of Portland Oregon. Over a thousand counter protesters gathered as well. Police officers in riot gear had arrived early. In the end they were 14 arrests. There were reports of police confiscation of implements of harm including bricks, a hunting knife, a sling shot and roadside flares. No injuries were reported.

When I heard the noise of the protests growing, it struck me again that listening is always an option. The next thought was how pedantic, naieve, parental in a potentially preachy way that statement could sound to the people gathered blocks away. True though it might be, it was as relevant to the moment as a sentiment inside a Hallmark card.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that scenes like the one in downtown Portland yesterday are still less fearful to the people involved than listening to each other appears to be.

Next, I thought about watching kids in families and classrooms over the last 35 years. At every stage, those kids – children and youth – need to know that their parents will show up if they are in danger. Show up to reign things in, to bring back the rule of law. This is how kids feel secure. It’s also how they learn to put those ways parenting inside themselves. Without experiencing that kind of limit setting, kids cannot grow to be adults who reign in their own extreme behavior.

As most adults know, it’s most challenging to deal with the kids who are most out-there in their limit testing. And it’s different deal when the limits are being tested by adults. But, maybe not a “whole” different deal.

Both groups protesting in downtown Portland Sunday have things in common with kids who “act out” to check for where the limits are. All of us do. And while these protesters should not be dismissed as childish, they are testing. Will they be heard in times when the structures of community and country are under severe strain?

Those who gathered in the Square, associating themselves with neo-conservatism and those gathered in protest who consider themselves anti-fascist could easily be understood as simply out of line – as “inappropriate.” This attribution is likely one they’ve gotten their whole lives. A lot of the rest of us are mad and afraid, but we get passive or withdraw.

Let me be clear. Violent behavior of any sort is out of line. But it is worth considering that part of what is being tested here is whether or not our country, our governments, and each of us can keep showing up as adults. It’s an urgent question in our country given current circumstances. It’s complex, because the mistrust is high no matter whether we are expressive or withdrawn.

Situations like yesterday’s are not isolated. They are calling for clear and reliable sources of order, respect and peace. These arise from the active balance listening with setting clear limits. No one can listen well when lines are drawn and held by insults, threats, fury – by violence of any kind.

The question. Who will carry this call to measured adult reliability?  It’s really on all of us.

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