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.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2002
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