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Getting Past 'Touchy Feely'

Nourishing The Spirit

The funeral of Mother Teresa was the latest in a series of events to legitimize public grief and endorse human feelings.

She was the one who spoke of "emotional poverty," and said, "We must nourish our spirit with emotional meaning."

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As a journalist, I have long avoided feelings. "How does it feel?" I associated with the hippies of the '60s.

"Touchy-feely" was a sarcastic phrase. I bridled when people asked me how I "felt" about the Middle East crisis or Bosnia. I used to consider thoughts important and feelings irrelevant.

No longer.

Gradually, it has been brought home to me that feelings may have more validity than opinions. A politician like Bill Clinton can impress people by telling them he feels their pain, whether or not he really does.

It seemed to me an essential part of Mother Teresa that she touched those she would console - the lepers and diseased - and held them in her arms. It was that ability to make physical contact that one also saw in Princess Diana with victims of AIDS and landmines.

A grieving and angered British public let the royal family know that in the new age, it was time to drop the stiff upper lip.

Prince Charles was denounced by the British press for not embracing his sons in public. And when the "royals" wanted to make peace with the populace, the way they did it was to touch and shake hands with some of the thousands who offered floral tributes and tears for the princess.

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For Mother Teresa, there was reverence, and for Princess Diana, adoration. But surely part of both was acknowledging the heart on the sleeve.

Until recently, Queen Elizabeth had never shown emotion in public, except perhaps once, and then in Latin. In 1992, after a rash of divorces and separations in her family, the Queen said that she had suffered an "annus horribilis," a horrible year.

The British are amazed at their own newly discovered ability to pour out their emotions in public. Author Anthony Sampson sees "an eruption of emotion long suppressed and longing to be liberated."

Americans, on the whole, have always been less inhibited. And recent years have given them ample occasion to join in grief - from the Kennedy funerals, to Pan Am 103, to the bombing in Oklahoma City.

Tears have become standard fare on television, and Americans think - no, feel - that there's no shame in it.

Mother Teresa and Princess Diana have helped millions to confront their own emotions. And I will never again bridle when someone asks me: "How do you feel about this?"

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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