Changing Inner and Outer Worlds

This week, two visionary women have died within days of each other: writer Madeline L’Engle, and entrepreneur Anita Roddick. To those who admired both women, their synchronous deaths seem to highlight the deep complimentary nature of their work.

As founder of the Body Shop, Anita Roddick proved that natural cosmetics could be attractive and marketable, and she built her business on ethical principles. She was also a tireless activist, philanthropist, and writer, who spent her life working to create a better world. Even though news of her death was on the front page of the BBC website for less than half a day, her impact on the world was visible, tangible, and unmistakable.

I doubt that Madeline L’Engle will be remembered as an activist, but I suspect she’s had as much effect as Anita Roddick in shaping our world. I recently re-read her most famous book, A Wrinkle In Time, and was shocked to see the roots of many of my political ideals embodied there. Of course, her books were not the only element that contributed to my moral and political consciousness, but they were enormously important in giving me metaphors and ways of thinking about the social contradictions that troubled me at an early age. Her ideas would not have resonated if I was not already sympathetic, but she was among many authors who implicitly gave me permission to listen to my growing moral consciousness.

Writers like Madeline L’Engle have given similar permission to countless young people, all over the world – though most will not remember her stories today. The literature we read as children is woven into our developing picture of the world, and our developing sense of morality. It is much more powerful than what we read as adults, because it speaks directly to our deepest dreams, without the interference of a grown-up voice to tell us what’s real and what’s impossible. But over time, as we become more concerned with grown-up matters, our childhood literature slips quietly into the unconscious background of our lives.

With the huge popularity of Harry Potter, children’s literature is enjoying a place in the media spotlight. But its real impact happens in silent moments of contemplation, as young people struggle to make sense of the world. The moral, philosophical, and political frameworks of children’s literature offer alternative visions to the consumer-driven isolation of modernity, and instil an early belief that another world is possible.

Where Madeline L’Engle crafted new shapes for our inner worlds, Anita Roddick laboured to change the outer world. Each type of work supports the other, and both are crucial to lasting transformation. It seems fitting that these two great women, separated by geography and vocation, should pass from this world so close together. May their courage and vision live on in the activists they have inspired.

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