May 27, 2021

What we can Learn about Joy from the Developmental Olympics.

The body heals with play, the mind heals with laughter, and the spirit heals with joy. ~ Marisa Donnelly


Reflecting on Marisa Donnelly’s idea that joy heals the spirit may seem out of place and terribly naive in light of the grief and loss people have recently endured.

However, I do believe joy is medicinal and joy is needed now more than ever. 

Merriam Webster’s definition of joy is “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune…”

Joy, a state of happiness, occurs whenever we experience great pleasure and delight. We also know we can attain joy when we rejoice in another’s good fortune.

I have found joy as the quality that elevates my spirit. Joy is the perfect elixir, an elixir so vibrant that states of joy, love, and gratefulness are stirred within and fill my heart fully.

Challenges Hide Joy 

I don’t believe we have fully recognized yet the toll the pandemic has taken on our psyches. Grief will accompany us for years to come, and as we begin to emerge more fully back into our communities, healing will be essential, not only healing for our bodies but also for our spirits. 

Ultimately, I believe the pandemic was a crash course on impermanence, the temporary conditions of life and our relationships. How forgetful we are about these truths until life changes in the blink of an eye. 

In the past year, we’ve dealt with shortages in food and toilet paper (of all things!), isolation, loneliness, and a tsunami of stresses.

Marisa Donnelly identifies what heals the body, mind, and spirit as play, laughter, and joy, which have been in an even shorter supply. These qualities disappeared faster than the material goods from store shelves. 

As I began to write a reflection on joy, I received the following text from a client: “I’m tired and I just can’t seem to find my joy like I had it before Covid and all of the other stress.” Last year my client had contracted Covid, was hospitalized, and thankfully recovered except for a lingering exhaustion. 

My client is one of the many unsung heroes of the pandemic. She is a teacher who took risks because of her loving concern for her students who are behaviorally challenged and have been struggling in their own right. 

It’s been one long, tough slog navigating back to a sense of well-being while supporting her family during pandemic challenges, managing a pressurized school situation of learning new technology, and adapting to fluctuating schedule changes warranted by her school district’s mandates. She was beyond tired and admittedly felt a sagging spirit.

Life changed for every one of us. The hope now is the potential for change as we reevaluate what is most important. 

Have you ever witnessed or participated in a moment that you thought might not ever happen? When I watched my daughter get married, and cradled my grandson and granddaughter for the first time, the flood gates of joy opened wide within me.

Attending the Developmental Olympics with my oldest son Sean was another immersive experience of joy. The Special Olympics began as an Olympic-style competition meant for those with special needs. Developmental Olympics engaged developmentally challenged individuals who wouldn’t be able to reach the level of prowess the Special Olympic games required. 

Sean wasn’t ever going to have the skills to be a candidate for the Special Olympics since his disabilities were more profound. However, as a participant in Developmental Olympics, Sean was eligible to take part in the sporting games that were more his speed. 

Sean attended regularly scheduled practices after school with a wonderful volunteer coach. His coach determined Sean’s strengths, identified three events Sean could participate in, and then helped to hone his skills through practice.

After weeks of training, participants showcased their skills at regional events. If a participant placed first at the regional events, the next step was an invitation to participate in the state’s Developmental Olympic games, which was a big deal. 

Sean’s events were a 25-meter unassisted walk and a 50-meter unassisted walk. In other words, Sean had to start and walk toward the finish line all on his own. He didn’t quite stay in the lane as well as he could have and had to be cajoled the whole way through, but he kept at it until he crossed the finish line. The whooping and cheering in celebration of Sean completing the walk brought a smile to his face beyond description. Pure joy!

Sean’s third event was the tennis ball throw. Sean had his own unique way of throwing a tennis ball. Often, he took at least 20 arm windups before he would finally release the ball. Sean often had a gleam in his eye as he watched us watching him. Maybe he enjoyed faking us out since every time he gave the appearance he was about to throw the tennis ball, nope, back his arm would go again with the clutched ball remaining tightly held in his hand. 

I’m not sure what Sean’s criteria was for the perfect moment to release the ball but when he did finally let go, Sean’s joy and pride at his pitch was equivalent to a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. It never mattered to Sean how far the ball was thrown; the thrill was having done it.

A Bubble Of Joy 

For those who have never witnessed a Developmental Olympics event, let me paint a picture. The long-awaited game day finally arrives! Buses, vans, cars unload excited participants who already are bubbling up with joy as they arrive. 

Thanks to Developmental Olympic volunteers, traffic flows smoothly. Volunteers make sure everyone goes to where they are supposed to be. These kind-hearted volunteers generously donate their time to not only facilitate these events but also to ensure every athlete has their own cheering squad. Throughout the day, volunteers call out a participant by name as they cheer, hoot, whistle, yell positive reinforcements, and offer continuous applause.

Once everyone is gathered together, the opening ceremony begins. First, an “official” welcome is given with some special guests saying a few short words. Then the athlete’s oath is recited. Everyone stands and, if able, recites, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt.”

Every time Sean participated, I would speak the oath on his behalf and without fail, every time, tears sprung to my eyes. Wild cheering would then follow not only by all the spectators and volunteers but also from the participants, who in my eyes looked severely affected or were suffering, yet here they were yelling with glee and unbridled joy. 

It was humbling to look around to see the athletes, some who didn’t understand what those words meant, yet would go on to exhibit bravery in their attempts to do well in their events. 

Participants, eager with delight, would then be called to line up when it was their moment to shine at their event. There were no nerves for these athletes! They were unabashed in their confidence, no self-consciousness whatsoever. The purity of their hearts wouldn’t allow it.

At the games, I observed athletes who sat in wheelchairs, kids who wore braces, visibly crippled children, and kids who wore helmets as Sean did. Joy illuminated their faces as the disabilities receded to the background. 

Joy had a vitality that transcended any ache, pain, or tiredness they may have been feeling. 

Joy Is Contagious 

Joy, ever-present, was widely contagious. Everyone smiled no matter the outcomes. There was no emphasis on winners and losers, just each person giving their best. Sean’s joyful enthusiasm was contagious. 

The joy bubble spread beyond the athletes to all those fortunate enough to witness the abilities that prevailed. Everywhere I looked, joy was visible. The purity of the participant’s heart, the lack of competitiveness, the fun of being a part of the games were all that mattered. 

It is true that being awarded a gold, silver, or bronze medal is always a highlight, but no participant ever grumbled about not earning a medal or feeling cheated if they didn’t win. Over the years, Sean eventually garnered many medals and proudly wore them around his neck just like athletes at the Olympics do. I do know, though, that even if Sean never won any medals, it wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing could pop the bubble of joy he experienced at the Developmental Olympics.

Finding Joy

What I learned at the Developmental Olympics is how joy can be had no matter the external circumstance. 

If joy is what our spirits need to help us heal, how then is joy attainable? How do we invoke joy or recapture joy as the case may be? 

Right at the entryway into joy is loving gratefulness. It is important to acknowledge any blessing that arrives at a certain moment in time that is often a culminating point in one’s life, to allow yourself to be immersed in the joy of the moment. 

I hope when we land on the other side of the pandemic, we will have learned or begun to understand more of what is essential to our well-being. I hope we will have become more aware of the moments to lean into, to take stock of our blessings and to grow in gratefulness for the privilege of being alive. 

To be brave in our attempts to find new ways to move forward, we must not only strengthen our bodies’ immune systems, but also fortify our spirits. Our spirits can grow stronger by an intentional choice to love and be grateful. Joy will then prove to be the best medicine we can use to resuscitate our weary spirits and hearts. 

Be the healer of your own spirit. Remember to revitalize your spirit by embracing moments of joy today and in the days ahead. 


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