The other day while I was at the YMCA, a group of mentally disabled adults and their caregivers joined us in the fitness room. It was obvious to me that this was a routine visit for them, because they knew exactly what to do. They found “their” machines, positioned themselves exactly right and waited patiently for the caregivers to come around, check their setup and start the timers.
What happened next was absolutely awesome. As the machines started up, huge – really huge – smiles spread across all of their faces. Their eyes lit up and they were filled with sheer, unadulterated joy. This was a joy so pure and true that it became contagious. Before long, others in the fitness room were smiling, too, and many offered words or gestures of encouragement. Eventually we could hear whooping and hollering – uncontainable exclamations of joy and excitement – from the disabled adults, which of course increased the joy and excitement all around. You can bet it got me smiling, and tearing up, too.
I couldn’t resist watching them, so I put my reading aside and let my attention wander from one to the other, just taking in their exuberance and marveling at their eagerness. The harder they worked, the harder I found myself working; the more they smiled, the more I smiled. It occurred to me that the source of their joy was the exhilaration of simply using their bodies to their potential and the appreciation of the gifts and abilities God has given them. Their focus was on what they could do, not what they couldn’t do.
Then suddenly, I felt very ashamed. Most days, I complain about every ache and pain, grumble about every limitation. If I don’t do it out loud, I certainly do it in my mind. I mean, really, what an inconvenience, right? How dare God get in the way of my ambitions! But these adults, these wonderful, joyful, people, see things differently. They don’t dwell on what they couldn’t accomplish yesterday, what they might not accomplish tomorrow or even what they can’t accomplish right now for that matter. Rather, they live in the moment and rejoice in what IS.
As I was observing and contemplating, the verse of the song “On Eagles Wings” came to me. The song, inspired by the words of Isaiah and the Psalms, goes like this:
And He will raise you up on eagles' wings,
bear you on the breath of dawn,
make you to shine like the sun,
and hold you in the palm of His hand.
Doesn’t that sound like my exercise-enthusiastic friends? With their glee and animated motion, they certainly seemed as though they were raised up on eagle’s wings, soaring along with spirits high and faces shining. And all that just because they’d discovered their ability to race on a stationary bike or run on a treadmill. How completely inspiring!
I don’t know for sure – perhaps no one does – but I would venture to guess that those with mental disabilities have a great advantage over those of us who don't. Living life doesn’t get in the way of their living faith. It seems to me that they have a far closer connection to God than I may ever have, whether they recognize him as God or sense his presence in their souls, I believe that somehow they know. They just … know. And when they race on stationary bikes and run on treadmills, they do so with pure joy because they trust that he’s holding them in the palm of his hand.