why ‘from the honesty box’?

The honesty box is a place I can walk to from home, roughly half-way between Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. It’s up a steep cobbled lane, on a farm with a view. It’s a shed, with an additional bench outside.

The honesty box is a small and simple space. Four wooden walls close together, with a door and some windows. Inside, you feel enclosed and sheltered, whatever the weather outside. It is interesting to notice the difference such enclosure makes, how it transforms one kind of space into another. The honesty box is a space small enough for conversations in pairs or small groups, even those in which people speak quietly.

Honesty box (1)

The honesty box is a place where you’re trusted. The door is open to anyone who passes by. Inside, there is a kettle to make tea, a table with a basket of cakes, a freezer stocked with ice-cream. You’re trusted to pay for what you eat or drink into a metal box, and it’s up to you whether or not to record your visit in a guestbook. It feels hospitable and welcoming without demanding very much from visitors.

honesty box inside black and white

The honesty box is a place that people – individuals and small groups – move in and out of. On a nice day, it can get really busy. Sometimes, this sparks random conversations between people who have only just met.

The honesty box is a good place to pause on a walk in progress, to catch your breath. It’s a place to rest, warm up on a cold day, get out of the wind or seek shade. It’s a place above the valley, in a spot that offers an overview of the landscape.

In the honesty box, some things stay around. A mini Christmas tree and fairy lights, for example. Or a yellow plastic bike that first appeared when the Tour de France came to our valley in 2014. I like these random juxtapositions. Others are replaced on a daily basis – the water, the cake, clean mugs. Evidence of care.

The honesty box feels like an appropriate metaphor for what I’m trying to do with this blog – to create a space to pause and share work in progress, much of which first emerged in spaces small enough for honest conversation, experimentation and private writing. To trust that some of these offerings will be welcomed by passers-by or regulars. To see what happens when – if – others who I might not have met enter this space.

Welcome.

5 Comments

  1. I’ve been thinking about the role of internet and social media on people’s genuine communication lately, on how the online space for honesty can be, on the one hand, compromised by “fake news” or even “fake stories” on a dialogue, or, on the other hand, be facilitated by the distance and the impersonality that online chats and posts can provide. As a poorly published poet in the paperback world, I started publishing my poems in blogs in 2011, always signing them with different names (what I called heteronyms or alteregos). I came to a sad conclusion (which can be precipitated, of course) that, unfortunately, the www has created opportunities for many voices to come up and speak, but not as many ears care about it. The speed with which it happened, also, seems to have given us no time to stop and think of the ethics and responsibility behind what we say or share… sadly. The honesty box you just described, however, seems to be a safe and genuine alternative for real conversation. Do you believe there’s space for something like it in places not as peaceful as the Calder Valley? Would people in different environments (politically, culturally, socially, etc) adhere to such a practice and how would it impact their lives? Congratulations on the blog initiative! I hope you manage to create an online version of the honesty box here.

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  2. Thank you for these questions, Cinthia, and apologies for the delay in responding… Your observations about many voices speaking and not as many ears caring, about distance and impersonality and speed, remind me of a discussion in John Paul and Angela Lederach’s book ‘When Blood and Bones Cry Out’. In their exploration of ‘Journeys Into the Soundscape and Healing and Reconciliation’, they point to the need for meaningful conversations in physical spaces that act as ‘containers’ – spaces that can hold people and in which their voices can resonate. My post about the honesty box was, in part, inspired by these ideas. The Lederachs’ suggestion is that voice is about physical vibrations that resonate in different directions – inwards into the speaker’s body and outwards towards others. Spaces like this need to be contained enough for voices not to dissipate before they are heard. And such spaces, they suggest, need to be sustained or recreated over time. If they are, conversations can circle and deepen and sometimes, eventually, resonate into a larger space. (Their metaphor here is of a Tibetan singing bowl.) In response to your last question, I would say that we’ve always needed such spaces and such conversations – sometimes, we just need to remind ourselves and each other that we do, especially when and where opportunities to have them have been eroded.

    The Lederachs’ exploration of such spaces and their potential for healing and reconciliation is rooted in places that are not peaceful. They tell some inspiring stories of how people have found ways of creating and recreating such spaces in the midst of cycles of violence and conflict, of how much courage that can take, and of how it can make a tangible difference.

    Recent conversations I have had with people who have lived with violence have given me a clearer sense of how building voice is closely connected to supportive listening, finding resonance, circling and deepening over time. A sense, too, of how sometimes it is only by coming out of violent places and situations, and into spaces that are crafted to enable curiosity and care, that it becomes possible to engage in the kinds of conversation that are needed.

    And perhaps sometimes, the only place to do this is online, and sometimes the only safe way to do it is anonymously. The kinds of questions the Lederachs invite us to ask can, I think, be asked in relation to virtual spaces too: How contained do we need them to be, how open can we afford them to be? What possibilities are there for resonance, circling and deepening? How might the design of virtual spaces convey an atmosphere that is conducive to careful engagement? Is anyone listening? How would we know? And does it matter?

    What I think I am doing here, mostly, is sharing some thoughts that have emerged from more contained conversations (both face-to-face and online) and/or internal reflections, and that have reached a point where they can expand outwards into a larger space. What happens next? Some of the feedback on these pieces has come back in real offline spaces (my office, the bakery round the corner), some has been in more contained virtual spaces than this one. I’m glad, though, that yours has come in this space, and that it’s allowing for this slow conversation. Thank you.

    PS. The physical honesty box has not, as far as I know, been created primarily or deliberately as a space for conversations – more a space for informal hospitality based on trust, somewhere to stop on a walk. Whether good conversations happen there depends on the people who pass by or who make it the destination of a walk. But then perhaps that’s true of many everyday spaces, and perhaps paying more attention to those spaces and opportunities is part of peacebuilding too. As Lederach suggests in ‘The Moral Imagination’, ‘think social spaces where people cross in natural ways, in necessary and often unnoticed ways’. Perhaps there are more ‘honesty boxes’ than we think…

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  3. Hi Ute, thank you so much for your feedback. Honestly I have to say that this virtual space can be, for me and many others, one for discussions and reflections that should resonate outside, in the real world. Especially if we think of the “democratizing” aspect of internet (which, of course, is questionable, but that allows people like me, on the other side of the Atlantic, to have access to such insightful information and also to interact with people engaged both academically and in practice about such interesting themes).

    Another point that intrigues me when it comes to virtual spaces, however, is the replacement of public spaces of political participation (in the Greek sense of democracy – are there still any genuine “Agoras” out there?) for the shield that the WWW can bring. I don’t mean simply anonymity, but rather the ethics and responsibility for the information spread online, and the possibility of exchanging viewpoints and making decisions. On the one hand, we have several political movements being led by the organized civil society or even common citizens everywhere through social media (e.g. the Arab Spring; the truck drivers strike in Brazil last year), but, on the other hand, we also have elections being decided through the spread of fake news all over the world. It makes me wonder where is the “honesty box” in such situations, as people manage to organize themselves towards a cause, but then such movements are dissolved, sometimes due to the lack of political organization in the real world, sometimes due to the manipulation of information.

    I will definitely have a look at the readings you mentioned. Thank you again!

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  4. Yes, all very valid questions and concerns. It’s easy to become disheartened by fake news, and perhaps also by how many ‘public’ spaces are becoming self-selecting in ways that encourage group polarization (that’s not always a bad thing – collective action can depend on it -, but it does shrink the space in which we encounter and actually engage with views different from our own).

    Lederach talks about the difference between metaphors of ‘critical mass’ – movements of like-minded people – and ‘critical yeast’ – people who are differently positioned and not necessarily like-minded, but who are connected and able to trust each other. Or differently put, ‘new social realities are brought into being over time by a quality of relationship between unlikely combinations of people‘. How do we encourage more ‘critical yeast’?

    Developing trust across difference isn’t easy, but nor is it impossible. Dialogue helps. Genuine dialogue, I think, is easier when people have the opportunity to meet in real life (or, as in this case, when we have met in real life before entering this online conversation).

    But that doesn’t mean online spaces can’t be used to encourage and model responsible dialogue across difference. One of my favourite examples of what this can look like is OnBeing – a site that hosts podcasts of real conversations with interesting people, poetry, suggestions on encouraging better conversations etc. Some of the most inspiring of these public conversations have been between people from different positions on the (US) political spectrum. In modelling an approach that embodies curiosity and care, could this inspire more of us to take a similar ethos into our own conversations, online or offline? OnBeing suggests that the ‘grounding virtues’ we might seek to cultivate include careful choice of words, generous listening, adventurous civility, humility, patience and hospitality. And I think it is possible to practice these qualities both online and in real life, in speaking/listening and in writing/reading…

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