Striving to be 'Number Zero'

At Wimbledon in 2002, tennis great Serena Williams was asked how it felt to be number one in the world. "When I was little," she said, "I always wanted to be 'number zero.' I thought that was the best you could be. I guess I wasn't very bright." Generations of spiritual teachers would beg to differ. In many spiritual traditions—Christianity included—becoming 'number zero' is part of being fully human.

In a culture that deifies personal ambition over communal advancement, being a zero is a bad thing. It's linked with powerlessness, victimization, and self-hatred. For the 4th century desert monastics, however, being a zero meant having acquired the virtue of humility. For them humility was the power generator of psychological freedom, the knife that cuts away worldly illusion.

The modern world equates humility with submission—women to men, darker skin to lighter skin, the world to America. The word even calls up a certain image—a passive woman divorced from her own needs, desires, and power. Conversely, but equally false, is the image of a toady who curries favor from higher-ups or someone who twists self-sacrifice into a self-serving art form. Submission breeds nothing but guilt or self-loathing that leaves one preoccupied with "worthlessness" and stuck in a narcissistic loop. True humility liberates and produces self-love and love of others, not guilt and resentment.

THE DESERT MONASTICS were experts in stages of spiritual development. They were very clear on the order of things. The goal of the Christian life is love, and all spiritual attitudes, disciplines, and practices are worthwhile only if they advanced a person in love. They considered humility a critical attitude of the heart. Humility meant recognizing that each person is no better and no worse than any other person. They understood that there was no hierarchy of value among people, because God created us all. The truly humble person sees everyone—billionaire, boss, or bag lady—as equal and gazes at each one with love.

How does one become a spiritual zero, embracing all equally? The spiritual marathoners lay out a few suggestions.

First, accept human weakness without being surprised or overwhelmed by it. The humble heart is very pragmatic about sin. Wake up every morning and say, "I sure am going to sin today." When it happens, smile at your humanness rather than beating yourself up over not being perfect. These moments let God make a move on us. The flip side of this practice is anticipating that those you love will also sin today. When it happens you're not caught off guard and don't need to take it personally. A humble attitude requires an agile spirit, one that "shakes the dust off" and moves on.

Second, we have to let go of spiritual heroics. It is easy to fall into a trap of measuring holiness by extreme acts of devotion. Unfortunately, taking on disciplines that are too hard for us is often followed by spectacular sinning and soul-crushing despair. It can become a spiritual binge and purge, meant ultimately to draw attention to ourselves. If we view the Christian life as an extreme sport attainable only by a few, then we miss the small daily acts of love and sacrifice that make the better part.

Ultimately, humility demands that we renounce our attachments to anything but God—security, wealth, our cult of personality, and our right to satisfy ourselves at the expense of others. Authentic humility generates power by taking radical responsibility for ourselves, even responsibility (though not blame) for things that are beyond our control. Humility hones a rigorous realism.

When Mohandas Gandhi, the spiritual leader of Indian independence, was asked if he was free from ambition, he said, "Oh no! I'm the most ambitious man in the world. I want to make myself zero." Gandhi practiced a "proud humility" that recognized the divine spark in every human heart, including his own. It's this attitude that fueled his freedom movement. He understood that humility was a discipline in search of the true spiritual goal, which is to love.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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