There is a query members of my family traditionally ask each other, a trick question actually, that started off as a riddle I’d pose to my daughter when she was a little girl and has since become a mantra.
The riddle is, “How can you tell when it’s the right time to be the bigger person?” It would come up when she had a conflict at school, or one of us parents had a conflict at work, or someone was acting the fool in a grocery store line or on the freeway, making us boil.
It’s a trick because the answer is, “It’s always the right time to be the bigger person.”
It’s a lesson no one ever succeeds at completely, a task that presents itself every day for those few people who even know it is the key task. Pride, ego, fear, hatred, insecurity, jealousy . . . seemingly every normal and instinctive human emotion demands that we be the smaller person sometimes, take what revenge we can, find pleasure in dealing pain, say a hurtful word, show them who they’re messing with.
Friday, when Donald Trump takes the presidential oath of office, the extraordinarily difficult challenge of always being the bigger person will become his absolute responsibility.
The oath says, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
But there is so much more to it than those simple words.
Trump will in essence become the father of us all, the protector and benefactor and guardian of all our nation’s citizens. And like a father, he will have to be for us even when he is furious with us. A good and loving father can be stern with his children, he can discipline them. But he cannot be cruel or belittling, hateful or unkind.
Trump will even become, because we are the richest and most influential nation in the world, responsible in a lesser sense for the well-being of every person on the planet. The United States is just that powerful when it acts, whether for good or for ill.
Trump is assuming an awe-inspiring responsibility, so much so that it’s hard to believe anybody comes to the office truly prepared for it. It is not instinctive to take responsibility for the personal safety of those protesting against you, but that’s the presidency. It is not normal to demand justice for those who revile you, but that is the presidency. It is not ingrained in us to fight for the free speech rights of those who say horrible things about you and your policies, but that is the presidency.
After the inauguration, Georgia Rep. John Lewis will be under Trump’s wings and deserving of his care and attention, as will the voters of Lewis’ district. This week Trump bashed both Lewis and the district. Next week he can’t.
Trump will be the sworn protector of the voters of Chicago, who balloted so decisively against him but who will need his help. He will be bound to fight for the well-being of the people who march against him Saturday, and the Hollywood elite, and Democrats, and American Muslims and Mexican Americans and even Rosie O’Donnell.
There is no proof, yet, that Trump cannot do this. He has never been charged with trying to do this.
He will become our 45th president Friday, which is to say he has never yet made a single mistake in that office. There is a lot in his conduct to suggest loving his enemies and protecting all citizens as if they were his own children will be a huge challenge for him, but really, it would be for anyone.
We must hope the oath and the office can inspire him to see his path: For the president of the United States, it must always be the right time to be the bigger person.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.