A few weeks ago I posted on a weird event that significantly contributed to my becoming a research scholar, involving my problems with ninth-grade Latin. You can see it here: https://ehrmanblog.org/one-of-the-weird-events-in-my-life-that-led-me-to-be-a-research-scholar/ Today I would like to talk about another one. It involves, well, hepatitis.
The background: I was always a competitive kid growing up. I loved games, I loved competing, and I loved winning. I wasn’t flippin’ *crazy* about it like some people, but I enjoyed it a lot. When I was young, competition mainly involved sports. I wasn’t a standout in any of them (in the least): I was pretty good at some things and not at all good at others. I mainly liked sports that involved balls and things to hit them with. I played varsity tennis in high school and played baseball up through my junior year.
I was far more interested in competing in things than in doing school work. I was smart enough and did well enough, but I never really threw myself into anything academic. I ended up in the top 10% of my graduating class in high school, but only barely squeaked in. There were *lots* of people – lots and lots (it was a good school) – smarter and more focused than I was.
So, here’s the story. Between my junior and senior years I was playing on a kind of lower-level American Legion baseball team; we mainly played other teams around Kansas, but we had a scheduled trip to play a three-game series against an all-star team in Bartlesville Oklahoma. When we got back from Oklahoma, I started feeling badly. I thought maybe I was just depressed (I was in a hitting slump). But nope. Not just that. Physical symptoms starting showing up, I went to the doctor, and lo and behold I had somehow gotten hepatitis A. So much for my baseball season.
Doctor’s orders: no physical activity. I was down for a couple of months. Lethargic, not feeling well at all, no appetite, etc. But, competitive guy that I was, I couldn’t stand just sitting around watching TV doing nothing.
SO, the other side of the story. Back when I had started high school I wasn’t interested in playing any of the fall sports on offer in high school, and so my sophomore year I wanted something competitive and joined the debate team. I actually liked it a lot–competition with the intelligence and rhetorical skill instead of brawn and physical prowess. I was pretty good at it — but only above average good, not *really* good. My school did have a really good team year after year, and I had some knock-your-socks-off colleagues.
In high school debate, the topic for the fall is announced in the summer (or at least it was then), and the kids who were *really* into it worked on in July and August. I wasn’t and I didn’t. But now I had hepatitis. With nothing to do. And eager to do something. Something competitive. I decided to throw myself into the debate topic for the year (a different topic every year). The topic was: Resolved: The Federal government should fund all primary and secondary education in the United States. You had to prepare to argue either affirmative or negative; at a tournament, right before your next round, you were told which you would be arguing. It was always two against two, so you had a partner and the two of you went at it against two others)
I knew nothing about the topic. But there were (non-athletic) guys I knew on the team (amazingly good at debate), I got some advice, and I started reading books and articles, making note cards for evidence (having zillions of “pieces of evidence” – that is note cards with quotations etc. – was a status symbol). After a couple of days I got *really* interested in it. I started cranking out the evidence. I realized I could come up with 100 note cards a day with this that or the other piece of evidence for one aspect of the issue or another. I did this for weeks. Many weeks.
When the season started I matched up with another reasonably good partner (she ended up teaching in university), and we did well. But we were not one of the top three or four (two-person) teams. That mattered, because we could send only so many teams to tournaments and the best two-person teams went to the best tournaments. If you won one of *those* you were hot property.
After a few weeks, one of the two best debaters on the team (he was *really* good; he and another fellow from the team ended up winning the national tournament in college as sophomores) decided to switch partners, and asked me if I’d be interested. I was. We went from there. We won a bunch of tournaments throughout Kansas and western Missouri. In the end, three (two-person) teams from my school went to the State Tournament, and we won that as well.
By the time the season ended, I was completely hooked on research, evidence, rhetoric, making arguments, and exposing the flaws of other arguments. During that time I had also become a born-again Christian, in developments unrelated to baseball, hepatitis, and debate. For that reason I decided not to go to Kansas University and try out for the debate team, which was one of the top ones in the country (my partner, btw, not only won the national tournament at KU but also ended up as the debate coach there for many years), but to go to Moody Bible Institute.
When I went, I threw myself into my studies with more passion even than I did with high school debate, since it combined my two recent recent obsessions, research and religion. And I made it a competition (get the best grades!). This obsession with research continued on past my fundamentalist days into graduate school and onward, and ended up making me into a research scholar – in religion but no longer in order to defend religion.
None of this would have happened if I had not gotten hepatitis. I would have ended the baseball season in a hitting and personal slump, probably would have gone to KU, done about average, and .. and who knows what I’d be doing. Or I might have gone to Moody, done about average, and ended up as a pastor of a small fundamentalist church in the middle of nowhere. Hard to say. But I would not have become a research scholar. No one on the planet ever imagined I would become a research scholar. No one. Especially me. Had no interest in it. All that changed when I got sick.
When I have written about suffering in the past, I have often had people tell me that I need to realize that suffering can have a silver lining, and that *that* is why people suffer. I don’t buy that for a minute. The 3000 people who died from Covid yesterday (I’m writing this post a while before you’ll see it); the many, many thousands who have died this past week from starvation, malaria, unclean water; and the many, many others who have been killed in the crossfires of wars they had no interest in; and many, many others who unnecessarily died: NONE of these had a silver lining. I’m not hard-hearted enough to say they did.
But a lot of our minor suffering does have a silver lining, or at least can if we look for it. Or even make it. Hepatitis can obviously be serious. Mine was highly unpleasant, but more inconvenient (OK, extremely inconvenient) than life-changingly serious. Except it did change my life. If I had not gotten it, I am absolutely convinced I would not be a scholar. I am so glad I am a scholar. Go figure.