“Let’s Not Be Number One”


 My February article in the Monadnock Shopper

It seems that our society is obsessed with the Number One.  All our politicians reiterate that the United States is still “Number One”, and that they have the qualities of leadership that can keep us in this ostensibly exalted position.  In sports, every player and team strives to be “Number One,” and those that reach this sublime state are worshipped as heroes.  Those that don’t quite make it, ending up in position number two or three or four retreat to lick their wounds, humbled and dreaming of when it will be their turn to be number one.  And many of us push our children to be number one in all that they do.

Even our language places the number one above the rest:  “I” is capitalized, while you, he, she, we, and they are not.  There is no other language I am familiar with where “I” is given such a special status.  Yes, we are very focused on “1” and “I,” which look remarkably alike visually.

But what if all this focus on being “number one” is part of our problem, both as a nation and individually?  What would life be like if we renounced our drive to be “Number One”?

Last weekend I had the great privilege of attending a workshop with Martin Prechtel, who was part of a Guatemalan Mayan community on the shores of Lake Atitlan for many years.  Fleeing the soullessness of his youth in New Mexico, under the shadow of a volcano Martin received initiations, became a shaman, married and had children.  One small son is still buried there.  When the genocide against the indigenous peoples of Guatemala began, most of the leaders of his community were murdered and Martin reluctantly fled the country.  He has since dedicated his life to trying to keep the wisdom and knowledge of these people alive through his own life.

Fifty or sixty of us had gathered to work with him all weekend, some from as far away as Canada and California, and he was teaching us about the Mayan way of counting and using numbers.  He began with “0” and then passed on to “1”.  We repeated the unfamiliar sounds after him.  At “1” Martin looked stern, and told us that for the Mayan the number one was the worst number of all, and that it should be passed over rapidly.  They considered that the number one was the root of many problems and yes, even evil.

In my mind, I could not help but hear a line from a song of my youth, “One is the loneliest number that you will ever find…”  Maybe Three Dog Night was on to something.

It’s kind of nice living someplace that has no illusions of being “Number One in the world.”  No pretense of being the “Leader of the Free World.”  I have been meeting more and more people locally whose dream it is to move to Costa Rica.  Great Weather.  Safe.  Good Healthcare.  And no military presence.  Costa Rica is the perfect example of a country that renounced decades ago having a military, and gave up any desire to be a power in Central America or beyond.  Instead, they decided to put their resource into helping their people have a “good life”.  They invested in education, healthcare and the environment.

Another interesting comment that Martin Prechtel made was that among the Mayan he lived with, a leader was never placed in the front of a group, but rather in the middle.  He explained that putting your leader in the front made everyone else competitive with each other to get closer to the leader, rather than creating a sense of community and sharing.  In Japan also, where I lived years ago, a good leader was someone who was a “team player” and did not stand out individually.  Trying to be “Number One” was frowned upon, and those who acted with such hubris were typically not promoted.

Trying to be Number One seems to me a very heavy burden that is weighing down our community and country and stealing the joy and happiness from our soul; and I have been thinking of late what life would be like in the United States if we collectively gave up this idea that somehow we deserve and/or are entitled to the Number One position in the world.

As we consider what a culture of peace, rather than a culture of war which is all that most us have ever known, would look like at the upcoming New Hampshire Culture of Peace Conference that will be held at Keene State College on Saturday, March 3rd, I urge each of you readers to let your mind and heart dream a bit as you try to envision what kind of community you would like your children, and their children, and their children to live in.


2 thoughts on ““Let’s Not Be Number One”

  1. I enjoyed the thoughts you put into this post. I have to agree and say that this unending quest for #1 sucks the life out of people, literally. It is a stressor that we don’t need and it removes most of the joy that the world, in its most plain form, can offer. Thanks for sharing these thoughts!

  2. To be humble is not generally an American trait. I watch the parents and teachers at my son’s Elementary School, a small private school serving a community very accomplished parents. So many parents are concerned about how their children come across to other adults . It has become expected for children to have the attributes of successful adults, firm handshake, looking into an adult’s eyes. It is now that thought these are natural traits for children, rather than cultural constructs.

    On a side note here is a link that brings out the fruition of this “first” status:


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