When I was in the first grade, I once called a classmate of mine “pig face.” I don’t recall who the boy was, but his response has stuck with me for over fifty years. He was aghast at me for “swearing” and told me with all the confidence of a six year old that I was “going to hell.” Any other child might have shrugged this off and called him another name or said “Oh yeah!” but his comment cut me to the quick. You see, even at that young age, I was a firm believer in a three-tiered universe with the earth in the middle, heaven above and hell below. Somehow I understood that everything I did on earth was going onto a tally sheet that would eventually determine whether I was going to the “good place” or the “bad.” It was devastating to discover that the battle for my soul had been lost at such a young age just for making an accurate, though unkind, comment to a fellow student.
The three-tiered universe was part of my belief system for a very long time, reinforced by Sunday School, and well-meaning ministers and the prevailing beliefs of the American Christian culture of my childhood and youth. Although I eventually understood that my first grade friend was (probably) wrong, I held on to the notion of a tally sheet based on everything I did every day of my life (that thing you did was good, that was bad, that was good, that was bad). As a youngster I swore constantly and creatively, sometimes even embarrassing my friends (that was bad, that was bad, that was bad). In ninth grade I stopped swearing and was convinced that the tally sheet was starting to even out and that I might be winning the battle for my soul (good, good, good!). Unfortunately, adolescent sexuality crashed that party and once again I feared for my constantly horny soul (that was, well, what can I say?).