All the Right Questions

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Meanwhile, at a Chicago homeless shelter for women called Deborah's Place, the discussion turns deeply personal with the question What's the role of courage in love? A woman replies, "The courage to walk away." Another says, "To walk away and not become a stalker. When I was 21 and in love with someone who was 19, that was the hardest thing I ever had to do." Launched three years ago with the question Why do bad things happen to good people?, the cafe at the shelter has been going strong ever since. "Just listening and participating made me grow a lot and care about myself when before I didn't," says Jackie Grayer, 51, a Deborah's resident who regularly attends meetings.

While Phillips believes the cafes can benefit anyone, one of his favorite groups is children. On a recent Thursday morning, he met with seven kids ranging in age from 6 to 16 at Children's Hospital in Oakland, Calif. Clad in multicolored hospital gowns and fuzzy slippers, the children were bashful about answering direct questions at first. But Phillips was undeterred. After making jokes about his own "uncool" haircut and lobbing out a couple of easy questions like "What's four plus three?" and "Do you like to draw?", he finally got his audience warmed up and eased them on to the heavier topic of truth, lies and secrets. "When is it not better to tell the truth?" Phillips asked his now rapt audience. "When is it good to lie?" Mariela, 10, who has severe asthma, replied, "When you're trying to help somebody escape from something like slavery."

Philosophy is important for kids of all ages, Phillips says later, because "it gives them this great chance to sculpt their moral code, to figure out clearly who they are and who they want to be ... The whole idea is not that we have to find a final answer; it's that we keep thinking about these things." One question at a time.

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