I attended 1st - 3rd grade in a small, two story red brick school: Saint Mary's. While in 3rd grade, our small town pastor abruptly died of a heart attack and, within a year, Saint Mary's school, like so many small-town schools during the steel collapse in Western Pennsylvania, was closed and torn down. I wound up going to another parochial school, Saint Catherine's, in consolidated classes but the lessons of my first school years under the watchful eyes of nuns in full habit remains strong in memory.
One of the most memorable things the nuns would impress upon us youngsters occurred during our seventh birthday. For that was a magic age - the age of seven in Roman Catholic tradition was the "age of reason"; the age where you were held accountable for knowing right from wrong and acting in accord with right values.
Or as the nuns would remind us from time to time; now, if we disobeyed and committed a mortal sin, we could go straight to hell. That was pretty heady stuff for a seven-year-old.
By the way - Pennsylvania gets cold in the winter, damn cold! Large icicles would hang from the sides of Saint Mary's school and, warmed by noonday sun, drip water in the deep snow forming icy hollows that were a blast to slide down on your back in the manner of a bobsled run. But there was nothing more forbidden in the dead of winter. Getting caught doing that fun slide was guaranteed to result in rapid and painful imposition of corporal punishment. There were stories of boys -- there were both wild boys and girls in school but it was always boys in the stories -- who disobeyed the nuns, did the bobsled run, and got skewered by a falling icicle . . . and went straight to hell. No matter how much fun sliding on your back on the ice was; risking eternal damnation was enough to give any seven-year-old pause.
I should explain about the Roman Catholic view of the afterlife. I offer advance apologies to the Roman Catholic theologians who study years for nuances on such things.
The Roman Catholic view of the afterlife is that our mortal life is one big test that determines who we are and how we will spend all eternity. And eternity with God is the "pearl of great price". This thought of eternal salvation or damnation even gave great thinkers pause.
Blaise Pascal, a true French Renaissance Man who lived in the 1600s, was a mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and philosopher. He virtually invented probability as well as the precursors to thermodynamics. Even he, in an age when God's existence was first being questioned, paused when considering eternal afterlife. He came up with what has been called "Pascal's Wager". Simply put: act as if God does exist because you have limited downside if you're wrong and unlimited upside if God, heaven, and eternity are real.
Pascal's Wager is an oblique acknowledgement of the point I want to make: the Roman Catholic premise is that, from the age of seven, you are ultimately accountable for the most important consequences.
Let me rephrase - it was impressed upon me in that small redbrick schoolhouse that no circumstance, situation, or challenge mattered more than my choices. Only I, and everyone else for that matter, from age seven on, would be held accountable for my outcome with eternity in the balance.
I am accountable. Period. End of Sentence. Nothing has ever liberated me more from peer pressure or society norms. Nothing has ever steeled my resolve more when facing adversity. I am accountable. Period.