Empathy and the Volkswagen Fox Effect

I once had a girlfriend who drove an old Volkswagen Fox. Before I started spending so much time with her I had never really paid attention to this kind of car, but after that I started to notice them. In fact there were several Foxes driving around our town, but I had been blind to them until I had a reason to notice them. This relatively sudden change in awareness of a reasonably common thing, caused by a new personal experience, I refer to as the “Volkswagen Fox effect,” and it is likely that you have experienced something like it in your life.

So here is the rest of the story: My last memory of this particular car is from just after I broke up with the girl. She squealed the tires on the road as she sped away from my house.

. . . and it was on Valentine’s Day.

I promise that I didn’t premeditate the timing of this breakup to schedule it on the worst day possible! It was a decision I had been stumbling towards for a few weeks, and that was just the day when I decided to follow through on it. Really it was a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Opening My Eyes

Alright, now let me get to the point of this story. I have definitely noticed the Volkswagen Fox effect in the weeks since Evelyn died. So many people around me have grieved a similar loss, but I didn’t really pay attention to it before. Miscarriage occurs in 10-20% of known pregnancies, so if you know more than 10 women who have been pregnant then you probably know at least one who has had a miscarriage.

One experience from about a week after Evelyn’s delivery is particularly memorable. I was speaking with a woman who had recently suffered an ectopic pregnancy which required emergency surgery. I was a bit surprised by how much empathy I felt for her. In an earlier time I would not have engaged much with the subject, because I wouldn’t really know what to say, but on this occasion we spoke for at least 20 minutes about our shared experience of losing a baby. We both cried, and shared our faith that these babies will still be a part of our families in the eternal world. This woman was also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and her covenants with the Lord have given her hope and comfort through her loss just like mine have.

Empathy Comes the Hard Way

A few days later I was describing this experience to my wife Marisa, and commented that the trials we suffer in righteousness make us more empathetic to others. She shared the insight that Jesus has the greatest capacity for empathy because he suffered all things and “descended below all things,” and did it all in righteousness. Whatever we suffer he will care about and relate to, because he experienced it with us and for us. His was an “infinite atonement,” and so his empathy is also infinite. Jesus has no “Volkswagen Fox effect” like we do; his awareness is already perfect.

Knowing this about our Savior, we should not be hesitant to share with him our difficulties or to ask for his help.

“15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.

16 Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).


Eventually I developed more empathy for the girl I broke up with on Valentine’s Day, because a little over a year later I got dumped by a girlfriend that I really liked. You could say that I deserved it, and I wouldn’t disagree with you. In my newfound humility I apologized to the girl who drove the Volkswagen, and we became friends again.

My experience of finding greater empathy for others through my trials has helped me to understand in a deeper way how Jesus Christ can have such unbounded compassion for us. I have more faith in him now, and more gratitude for what he did, because I understand something more about how he came to be such a powerful helper.

The goal of our Heavenly Father’s plan, of which Jesus Christ is the chief executor, is to make us more like he is. If we accept life’s challenges with faith, then through his grace we will become more like Christ in our capacity to love and empathize with others. I can imagine myself writing those very words in the past, but now I write them from the perspective of one who has learned them through experience, and I feel their truth in a deeper way.

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

2 replies to “Empathy and the Volkswagen Fox Effect

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