Constructive Living with Dyslexia

Way back in 1984, before many of my readers were even born, David K. Reynolds published a short book. This 120-page gem goes by the title, Constructive Living: Outgrow Shyness, Depression, Fear, Stress, Grief, Chronic Pain. Achieve the Goal of Constructive Living—to Do Everything Well. The title is a bit of a mouthful, but it speaks to so many of the issues those of us with dyslexia face that it lit up my brain with possibilities as Reynolds encouraged his readers to become Artists of Living. Because although we can’t “outgrow” dyslexia, we can learn to live with it more peacefully and effectively, and this book offered some helpful hints along those lines.

Constructive Living is based on the truth that although we can’t control our feelings, we can control our behaviors. Reynolds states, “Our behavior is controllable in a way that our feelings are not. There is a very special satisfaction for the Artist of Living who works within life’s limits to produce a fine self-portrait. The more control we develop over our actions, the more chance we have of producing a self we can be proud of.” Strong feelings are part of the accouterments of dyslexia. But they don’t have to define us or control us. No matter what we may be feeling, we always have the ability to choose our next action.

The first goal Reynolds suggests is self-mastery. “The mature human being goes about doing what needs to be done regardless of whether that person feels great or terrible. Knowing that you are the kind of person with that kind of self-control brings all the satisfaction and self-confidence you will ever need. Even on days when the satisfaction and confidence just aren’t there, you can get the job done anyway.” Those of us with dyslexia have to accept the fact that everything we do related to reading, writing, learning, and in many cases, mathematics and sequencing will take a big chunk of time and tremendous mental energy. And that’s ok—it’s our reality. We show up for it. I think in many ways, this is one of the strengths of our “disability,” because from a very young age, we have to begin to develop tenacity and a certain stolid forbearance of our burden.

There’s more. “The first step in changing reality is to recognize it as it is now. There is no need to wish it were otherwise. It simply is. Pleasant or not, it is. Then comes behavior that acts on the present reality. Behavior can change what is. We may have visions of what will be. We cannot (and need not) prevent these dreams. But the visions won’t change the future. Action—in the present—changes the future. A trip of ten thousand miles starts out with one step, not with a fantasy about travel.” This ability to recognize reality as it is now, and accept it as the truth it is, has been one of the responses to my dyslexia that has given me the most peace. In talking with others with dyslexia, they have found the same to be true for themselves. Nothing has changed about the tremendous effort required to live as a dyslexic, but accepting that truth frees up so much energy for action that it fosters a real sense of liberation. There’s a freedom in accepting reality, whether it is dyslexia or some other limitation. And it’s well-documented that we dyslexics, no matter the degree of our sensory involvement or challenge, can become better readers with time and effort. Action, over time, is a powerful thing. Even baby steps are steps and yield measurable results.

Toward that end, (measurable results, a.k.a. Constructive Living) Reynolds makes the powerful statement “feelings follow behavior.” So although feelings can’t be controlled by our will (we’re gonna keep having ‘em), we can influence them in positive directions by taking action. By practicing behaviors that align with our highest selves, we generate confidence and satisfaction, because we know when we are showing up as the best version of ourselves. One tool Reynolds offers toward this goal is to remember that the earth is not the center of the universe, and neither are we. It’s easy to become overly self-focused when struggling with dyslexia: the shame of feeling inadequate, the efforts to hide our dysfunction from others, the mental fatigue resulting from the level of effort required to do things, and feelings of injustice can consume our emotional energy. But when we remember that we aren’t the center of the universe, we have a healthy perspective once again. After all, everyone struggles with something—everyone, without exception. We all face times of pain, sadness, anxiety, fear, or anger. Feelings are like waves at the seashore, constantly rolling in and rolling out, day in and day out. But what are we going to do about those feelings?

Reynolds proposes a brilliant and powerful question, “Now what needs to be done?” I love that. Feeling punk? Ok, but now what needs to be done? Feeling a bit overwhelmed or anxious? Fair enough, but now what needs to be done? Frustrated about something? That stinks, but it’s the reality of the moment, so now what needs to be done? Once that very next action has been identified, the universe is calling us to get on with the action. The Nike moment: just do it. And watch what happens. “Behavior wags the tail of feelings…We do, then we feel.”

Reynolds’ summary inspires, “Constructive Living offers a lifestyle of worth and dignity. But this mastery of life grows slowly, painfully, and only with effort. It requires attention, patience, self-discipline, honesty. It asks you to face your feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, to check out your purposes, large and small, to guide your own behavior, whatever the pain, in constructive directions. It advises you that when you fail, in that strain toward impeccability, that the suffering self is lost and a triumphant self is gained.”

The obstacle is the way, folks. Here’s to our mutual triumph over dyslexia’s challenges and all else that seems to threaten our joy and peace. Because now something needs to be done. It’s time to become Artists of Living, one baby step at a time.

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