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Smile, Dammit!

Smile, Dammit!

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Smile, Dammit!

154 pages
2 hours
Mar 29, 2019


'This is a book about optimism and hope. It is about spring and new beginnings, and about endings that are happy - even if sometimes, along the way, the journey is not. It is about learning the critical skill of holding a mirror up close and loving what you see - and changing that which you don't.'

This book is about harnessing the immense super-power of positivity.

'Howard's contributions to News24 Voices regularly feature among the most popular.' Peet van Aardt, Media 24 

Mar 29, 2019

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Smile, Dammit! - Howard Feldman



To tell someone to smile is to tell them to pull themselves together. It might be exactly what it is that they need to do, but there is little chance that they will either appreciate the sound advice, or even be able to do so.

Even if they want to.

Most of us want to be optimists. It means living longer, being more healthy, happier in relationships and being better off financially.

Most of us want to have the confidence to know that tough situations are temporary, that not everything is necessarily a negative reflection of ourselves, and that whereas we might have strong feelings about something, that those feelings do not always reflect reality.

We all want to know that we can change our circumstances, and that we are empowered to do so.

But it’s easier to say than to achieve.

Our Facebook newsfeed could fill a book with all the profound insights and wisdom that we require to live a conscious and fulfilled life. It might well provide us with all that we need to live a thoughtful, sober and appreciative existence. If only we could live our feeds.

But we can’t. Because although we might agree that we should ‘live each day as if it’s your last!’ it’s not always practical. Laundry must still get done and pesky tax returns completed. If today was indeed your very last day on earth, I doubt that anyone would choose to spend it correcting an invoice for Debbie in accounts.

Which renders the beautiful sounding phrase nonsensical.

I am often told that I am a natural optimist, and that it is difficult for someone like me with such a positive outlook to empathise with a person who is not. I am not convinced, however, that anyone is a ‘natural’ anything. I think that ‘natural optimists’ work on the skill constantly, that they develop the craft and that they build a resilience required – perhaps working harder or earlier than their pessimist counterparts, but certainly no less.

I wrote this book because I would like to help the optimists understand themselves and ‘bulletproof’ their outlook. More importantly, I would like to assist those who do not subscribe to a positive approach, to see that there is an alternative to gloomy ‘realism’.

This is not a book of denial. It is a not a user’s guide to mastering myopia.

On the contrary.

Change requires an honest and unflinching look in the mirror. It requires recognition that an understanding of ourselves is the first, and the most critical, step towards change. It demands an understanding of why we think like we do and how our thoughts control our feelings.

I am deeply appreciative of the fact that I have been able to write this, and I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my wife Heidi who meticulously read, argued, suggested and encouraged me to do so. Without her guidance and support I am not even certain that I would have conceptualised the book, let alone written it.

Join me on the journey.


As a child, I spent a lot of time in my own head. I was never much of a sleeper, and so the nights were long, and were as lonely as I allowed them to be. Often, I would give in to the isolation and would walk, pillow under my arm, down the passage to my parents’ room. It didn’t really help, as they were generally fast asleep, but the change of scenery was sometimes all I needed.

Television only came to South Africa in 1976, and of course there were no cellphones, so distraction lay either with the radio or with books. I grew to love both. The audio ‘plays’ each weeknight would transport me into another world and when my younger brother, with whom I shared a room, could take it no longer, I would turn off the light and take refuge in the books that I would have to hide under the blankets and read by torchlight. I became a clandestine reader, both because I was told I needed to sleep and because my father hated the intense and ‘depressing’ material that I was drawn to.

I went through some very extreme stages where I would read anything that I, a young South African child, was able to access. Remember that the early 1980s in South Africa were not exactly a time of literary freedom. Any text that was perceived to question the white dominant narrative or undermine Christianity in any way at all was deemed contraband. It was even rumoured that the child’s book, Black Beauty, was banned, but I am still not sure if that was a mockery of the government or was based on fact. So paranoid and evil was the apartheid system that it was very hard to differentiate between fact and fiction.

It was not only this type of freedom that was limited. Besides the very obvious oppressive apartheid era laws, there were also multiple ones that curtailed the enjoyment of life. No shopping malls were to be open on a Sunday. You were not allowed to purchase alcohol. No movies. No entertainment on TV (when it arrived in the country). I am still traumatised by the thought of a Sunday night opera or classical music rendition of something or other that my mother would watch, simply because there was little alternative. No alternative for her that is. My father would play poker each Sunday night in order to escape the awful tedium of Sunday in South Africa.

This meant that Sundays were either about playing sport (not exactly a gift of mine) or one had to find other ways to entertain oneself. As kids that generally meant meeting friends on our bicycles and riding around and around and around the block. Because we were too young to be allowed to cross any self-respecting road.

When the weather was poor, or I had to be home for some reason, I would lose myself in books. The intensity with which I read must have been a little unnerving for my parents, and in particular for my father, who has one book, Vanity Fair, under his belt, and that was because it was a school setwork. Strangely, he has spoken about the humour and the irony of that novel most of his life, so it is a little strange that he doesn’t enjoy reading more than he does.

I am David and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit were the children’s holocaust books that set me off. Perhaps because I identified with the alienation of the characters, or because holocaust talk was a part of my childhood, these books drew me into a genre that would hold me for some time. At 12, I completed Elie Wiesel’s books and to this day, age 50, I can still recite paragraphs by heart so etched are the words in my memory.

I might have started with an interest in holocaust literature but then moved to African slavery (specifically in the United States), and then to trying to understand the magnitude of the horror for many in South Africa.

But I was not depressed. Or sad. Despite what I read. Rather, the heavy nature of the topics freed me from my own alienation. It offered me perspective and I learned from my friends who lived in the pages of the books I had read, how resilience is found.

To this day I am not a fan of unhappy endings. There very rarely seems to be that good a reason for it. Certainly, the journey might meander through the depth of misery, but for me there hardly ever seemed to be a point to the pain, unless something better awaits. I still also remain hyper-vigilant toward gratuitous misery. You know those books that are designed to make you sob? It’s misery pornography in my view. It’s like any sex scene in a movie or book – perfectly reasonable if there is context and it makes sense. But not if there isn’t and it doesn’t.

And yet I have noted that many people are attracted to stories that end in (sad) tears. I have noted many who feel validated as the rivers of misery gush down their sodden faces and they heave and sob into a soiled, disintegrating tissue. ‘So beautiful,’ they will say to no one at all, before getting up to rejoin their now magnificent lives.

I have never really understood this. I have also never really understood people who attend the funerals of grandparent’s friends. And although not having met them, they manage to wail at the tragedy of it all. Even if the deceased was 98 and had been in a coma since before Instagram.

These are the same people who will send you WhatsApp warnings of horrors that happened to a friend of a friend one Saturday night (as confirmed by the police). These are the people who have a tragic story to tell every time a child eats a grape. And these are the people for whom it is either way too hot, or it’s freezing. But it’s never quite right.

These are the same people who warned Little Red Riding Hood that she should not wander off the path. And that she should not talk to the wolf, because doing so would bring death and shame to the family. They are the ones who nod sagely and say I told you so.

But they are also so busy being so cautious and so right, and they might be fantastically successful at avoiding the pitfalls and the dangers they are smart enough to anticipate, that they forget to live at all. Not only that, but they also struggle to acquire resilience that will ultimately free them from the oppressive role as Riding Hood’s mom.

It was during the dark, long hours of my child nights that I acquired resilience and optimism. I wasn’t abused or neglected, and I didn’t have any challenges greater than anyone else did. It was because I had so much time to spend alone while the rest of my world was sleeping. It was during those nights that I learned how to control the journey that my mind would take and recognise the feelings that would follow a particular thought. I took my imagination to uncomfortable and unpleasant places and then quickly changed routes when I did and noted that my spirits could be lifted. I learned that I could control my dreams and change the outcome of an event simply by willing it.

I learned that in the early hours of the morning when I didn’t want to get dressed for school, that if I scanned the

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