Empathy is the Secret

“Empathy is the secret to most things in life–including magic.”

Deborah Harkness has the father of her protagonist, the modern witch Diana Bishop, say this in her newly published Shadow of the Night. I stumbled on her first work of fiction, A Discovery of Witches, while researching the history of witches and witch hunts. At any rate, both novels are good reads, historical fiction with a supernatural twist, attention to detail, and humor. The books are love stories, forays into the history of science, and explorations of the ethics of speciesism.

So if magic is desire made real (a possibility her characters discuss), then in some sense magic is everywhere, as we are always striving in one form or another to actualize our desires. English author Eden Phillpotts wrote

The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

Hmmm. And if empathy is the secret to many things–for example, self-healing (tonglen), healing others, healing relationships–then perhaps we are being asked to keep desire balanced with empathy, to hold both simultaneously. Diana Bishop’s struggle to learn how to use her magical gifts (this is not a spoiler, but the way her character is introduced to her readers early on) involves relearning her relationship as subject to the objects that make up her world, which is, I think, another way of talking about empathy.

At any rate, Harkness is apparently the academic we all want to be–one who knows her stuff and who can write fiction.


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  1. Hi, after reading this amazing post i am also glad to share my experience here with colleagues.

  2. Jenn says:

    You quoted above – “The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” –

    Beautifully stated. I appreciate the profoundness of the quote and now know that I must read this book. Thank you.


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