Creating a Moral Conscience

A recent talk with a friend gave me valuable insight into an important human phenomenon: how is a moral conscience created? A few years ago, I met Pierre, an abstract painter, and we developed a close friendship. As I learned about his complex upbringing, I wondered how he was able to overcome harrowing events in his life.

Pierre had been borne in a French containment camp (which in practice functioned as a prison,) where his parents were held after fleeing Spain’s civil war fought between 1936 and 1939 between Republicans and Nationalists. Both of them fought on the Republican side against the regime headed by general Francisco Franco. When the Republicans were defeated, to escape Franco’s reprisals, they crossed on foot the Pyrenees, a mountain range that separates the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of the continent. A strenuous trip under any circumstance, crossing the tallest mountain range in Europe was excruciating during the bitter winter cold.

From the time he was born Pierre was surrounded only by adults. He told me, “For a long time, I thought I was a midget, since I never saw another child.” When the Nazis invaded France, Pierre’s father was sent to a concentration camp and his mother went underground; Pierre was left in the care of strangers. Only later, when he was sent to an orphanage, he learned how to play with other children.

When the war ended, his mother chose to live in France but not for too long. Because his father never came back, his mother took care of him with the occasional help of paid caretakers. A couple of years later, his mother decided to come to the U.S., and they ended up in a rough Bronx neighborhood.

With French as his only language, the frail and shy Pierre was the target of bullying and threats from older children and had to be rescued by adult neighbors. Once he learned English, however, he was accepted by his peers. “These were not easy years for me,” he told me, a gross understatement considering he was left in the care of neighbors or family friends when his mother, who worked in the merchant marine, went out to sea.

Often short of money, he found a way to survive as a courier to drug dealers. “It scared the lights out of me, but it was an easy way to make some money for food and the frequent movies I attended, where I was transported to another world away from the strains and ugliness of everyday life. The American movies showed me a world totally different to the one I had known in France.”

Pierre was able to leave that line of work (“a cause of great anguish,” he confessed) learned a few trades, created a loving family, went to art school, and became an excellent abstract artist. “I played the cards that life gave me the best way I could,” he said.

During our frequent talks, I was curious to find out how he became the good citizen I know him to be, concerned about the fate of this country, and the world, always ready to help people in need. Simply put, how did he find his “moral compass”?

“When I was a child,” he told me, “I saw the American movies of the 50s, that portrayed an America that no longer exists, among them ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. More than any other, that movie had a transformative effect in my life. That’s how I learned about the evils of injustice, racism and prejudice and their negative effects on people’s lives, and on the lives of a nation. And because it showed the consequences of those feelings from the perspective of a child, the impression that movie had on me was even greater.”

“Mesmerized by the movie, at times I was ‘Jem,’ the child protagonist; more often, however, I was Atticus Finch, the lawyer who taught his children to be empathetic and just. ‘It is a sin,’ he told them, ‘to kill a mockingbird,’ referring to the fact that the birds are innocent and harmless.” “Since then, those values became part of my moral compass, and the sense of justice and my endeavor to contribute even in small measure to build a better world have never abandoned me.”

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”