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Issue of October 29, 2014

A hope note
A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.

Honor system

October 03, 2012 | 09:07 AM

Our church has a new library. It's tiny as libraries go, having only about three square feet of floor space.

It's called The Little Free Library. It's shaped like a cottage and sits, like a birdhouse, atop a post. It stands four feet off the ground and about 20 feet off the heavily-traveled highway in front of the church. The driver-friendly location beckons passers-by to pull off the road, look over the dozen or so books from the comfort of their car and take with them a free book. The idea is to take a book and leave a book, shop and swap, any time, any day.

Best sellers, classics and children's books have been popular so far, but it's too early to know whether the trust system will prove to be sustainable.

Swanton Berry Farm, just outside Santa Cruz, Calif., has thrived for years on the honor system. Customers take the fruit and vegetables they want, calculate on scratch paper what they owe and stuff their cash or check into the unattended honor box. Jim Cochran, who runs the farm stand, reports that through the years most customers have left more money than they owe.

Brain researcher Paul Zax, in his book "The Moral Molecule," says that, whenever we trust or feel trusted, the brain releases oxytocin, the same neuropeptide that helps a mother bond with her newborn and helps people behave hospitably and generously to strangers. The result is that we leave the transaction feeling better.

I'm hoping that what we'll learn from The Little Free Library experiment is what Albert Camus, an atheist, concluded on the last page of his novel "The Plague." He postulated: "What we learn in time of pestilence is that there are more things to admire [in people] than to despise."

Dr. Wayne Willis

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