How NFL Referees (Like the Rest of Us) Proved Their Value

“Oh, Now You Love Us.”

That’s the headline overlaying a picture of beloved NFL referee Ed Hochuli, staring at me from the cover of the Sports Illustrated issue I pulled from my mailbox this morning.

Referees, players, and fans are all breathing a sigh of relief after September 29, when the NFL officially ended its lockout of officials. Not coincidentally, a few days earlier, replacement officials had blown a big call on a very public stage–Monday Night Football. The call, which initially had two officials standing next to each other and giving conflicting signals, awarded an unearned touchdown to the Seattle Seahawks and ultimately handed them an undeserved win over the Green Bay Packers. Fans were outraged, social media went wild, and soon the NFL officials were back at work.

A lot of people, like me, probably didn’t care that much about who was officiating the games when the season started. Referees and kickers have something in common: most people don’t pay much attention to them except when they screw up. They’re chronically underappreciated for what they do right.

But when that game went so glaringly wrong, suddenly everyone desperately wanted those NFL referees back. They saw a clear picture of their value. Why? Not because they did something extraordinary, but because the replacements screwed up. The NFL refs’ professionalism, experience, and skill stood out in sharp contrast to the alternative.

This story reminds me of . . . well, all of us. It reminds me of the woman who returns from a weekend away and shakes her head at her husband’s incompetence, yet takes secret pleasure in knowing her family really appreciates her now. The child who packs a handkerchief and ties it to a stick, determined to run away because he’s sure his parents won’t fully appreciate his worth until they have to live without him. The man who mentally sizes himself up against every other man in the room, desperate to come out somewhere near the top according to whatever standard seems important at the time.

It reminds me of myself. A year ago, I knew vaguely that my identity was too tightly entwined with my work and that leaving my executive job would mean a temporary blow to my self-concept. Now, a year later, I’m shocked to find myself still missing that old title sometimes, just because it meant I didn’t have to work very hard to convince people I was worth something. I didn’t have to work so hard to convince myself.

This is the primary natural way we seek personal value: we measure ourselves against one another. We do it constantly, both consciously and unconsciously. We compare, contrast, and step on each other as we’re straining to reach just a little higher. We subtly put others down to make ourselves look good. We lovingly feed and water and soothe our own images, which sometimes have very little to do with who we really are.

We’re constantly trying to prove ourselves, and as long as we’re among the top people in the room–or at least we feel as if we legitimately belong in the room–we feel OK. If not, we usually figure it’s time to change another thing about ourselves.

Ultimately, who are we trying to convince? As I tell my middle-schooler, “Everyone is too busy thinking about themselves to spend much time evaluating you.” Yes, basically we’re all trying to convince ourselves.

Sadly, some people never feel like they’re among the top people in the room. In fact, they’re usually so far outside the room, they can’t even see who’s in it. They learn early on that in this cruel system, they’re among the perennial losers. They’re permanent fixtures toward the bottom of the measuring stick, and they might as well stop trying. In their minds, they don’t qualify for notice, let alone esteem.

People like Hagar. Hagar was a slave in the ancient Near East, a person of little value in comparison to those around her. That is, until she accomplished something her mistress, Sarai, could not do. Something very valuable. She conceived a child, fathered by her mistress’ husband, Abram. Suddenly she had tremendous value, and she stopped acting the way a slave was supposed to act. “She began to treat her mistress, Sarai, with contempt” (Genesis 16:4). This led to serious trouble in the household, and the contrast between the way Hagar now saw herself and the way she was treated became too much for her. So she ran away.

While Hagar was in the wilderness–a pregnant, probably desperate, runaway slave–an angel found her and called her by her name. “The Lord has heard your cry of distress,” he told her. And he presented her with a plan and purpose. “Return to your mistress,” he said. “I will give you more descendants than you can count.” He told her to name her unborn son Ishmael, which means “God hears.”

Hagar obeyed this angel’s instructions, and after that she had a new name for God: “the One who sees me” (Genesis 16:13). He had indeed seen her, known her, called her by name, and given her hope and a future with a purpose.

Years later, Sarai tossed Hagar back out into the wilderness with her son because she couldn’t stand to see Ishmael making fun of her own son, Isaac. I don’t know how Hagar’s relationship with Sarai worked in the intervening years, but I imagine Hagar’s encounter with God made a difference. She was seen, known, and loved by God. She had a purpose and a future that Sarai’s social status couldn’t thwart. She didn’t need to find her dignity at Sarai’s expense.

Thousands of years later, we still believe our value comes from our status in relationship to one another. This suggests a finite amount of true self-worth is available. And such scarcity means only the people at the top can have it–we must compete for it.

Our culture reflects this competition for value. Listen for it in popular music. Look for it in the halls of your local middle school or high school. Check out a few ads and feel it subtly working on your urge to keep up with the Joneses. Watch a few minutes of reality TV, and it’s almost all you’ll see. And every day, the news is peppered with stories of people who made terrible choices on their way to trying to find or maintain value defined by comparison to others.

Ultimately, we’re all looking for love. We seek self-love that will make us comfortable in our own skin. We want the love and affirmation of others, assuring us we’re OK. That we deserve a place among the people we admire.

We tend to believe love is scarce because our understanding is limited by our experience of ourselves and our own neediness. It’s very, very hard to give love away when you’re not sure you have enough for yourself. So we try to rob it from one another. We withhold it and hoard it for the days when we need to feed our own sense of value.

This is ironic, because the same God who saw Hagar in the wilderness and called her by her name sees and knows us all. And he treasures each one of us. This is big. This is revolutionary, what God says to us: I see you. I call you by name. I love you. It turns out, there’s plenty of love to go around. Ultimately, a lasting sense of value comes not in being better than others, but starts with acknowledging that on our own we never will be.

© 2012 Amy Simpson.