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  • Writer's pictureStephen Paul

The joy and pain of celebrating life

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Sunday Assembly Reading - Neurodiversity - May 2019

Sunday Assembly is a secular celebration of life. It's easy to imagine this involves lots of clapping, big smiles, howling whoops, matey high-fives with strangers and affectionate proclamations about science. And sometimes that is true. Other times celebrating life is hard. The journeys we make of self-discovery and self-acceptance have a cost that is multiplied by the constraints and assumption society attempts to imprison us in.

For this Assembly we thought on neurodiversity and wider concepts of individuality.

The Assembly kicks off with a gentle game. This gives people permission to mix and interact in a more structured and, conversely, a less constrained way than inviting small talk.

With reluctant enthusiasm to push herself into the uncomfortable, Lynda is The Games Master today. In the planning she was apprehensive of the responsibility of creating the game and taking command of the room. But we are a team and around Natalie's dinner table we conceived a team game in which birthday party celebrations were planned. The idea was to illustrate that the needs of one person rarely met the needs of the many. The game works well.

The band comes to life with Abba's Knowing Me Knowing You. A great singalong song about the difficulties of relationships.

The Word of Bob performing Knowing Me Knowing You
Knowing Me Knowing You - The point when everyone sang like Alan Partridge

"What's Better Than One Song?", "Two songs!"

Amy ticks an item off her bucket list by leading a Taylor Swift song for the first time at the Assembly. Sometimes you need to accept that others are not going to see you as you are and it's best just to Shake It Off, Shake It Off.

Abi Moorcock is our keynote speaker. She has been a familiar face at the Assembly for the last five years. She speaks passionately and insightfully about neurodiversity and her recollections of the struggles she and other neurodivergent people face getting a diagnosis and navigating a society designed for the neurotypical. Her analogy for this dissonance is of pushing a square peg in a round hole - the real issue is the damage done to the peg.

Her voiced weakens as she visibly struggles to remain composed as the slides she flicks through bring forward the confusion and frustrations she has felt to get to this point in her life.

Abi answers question after question - so many people wanting to share their stories and understand more, until time forces us to move on.

The Doing Your Best slot is a cherished time at the Assembly when a member of the community shares a success, or failure or an ongoing challenge. Public speaking strikes fear into Ellie and the look of the condemned was on her face as she attempted to socialise with the early arrivers before the Assembly started. The band had cleared from the main hall ahead of schedule so she, with the help of Sam, could gather her thoughts and familiarise herself with her surroundings. Edward, today's host, welcomes Ellie to the front of the congregation. She is very nervous and within 15 seconds of starting to talk, she is in tears as she recounts her recent diagnosis of Autism, and the joy and comfort that gave as the it allowed her to understand herself and connect to others who could understand her condition. This was her "coming out" moment. To listen to someone obviously distressed for 5 mins is a powerful thing. Ellie's courage and honesty had a deep effect on those present. From the applause anyone entering the room at that moment would have assumed a much loved celebrity had just left the stage. And perhaps that was the case.

The final significant task for the host is to bring out a take home message from the elements of the Assembly. It becomes clear that Edward is struggling to express himself as he circles the subjects. He had been keen to host so he could speak of his family's experience of his autistic nephew. His words dry up as he removes his glasses to clear his eyes. It becomes apparent that autism is not limited to an individual, but experienced in a family. The needs of the one effect the needs of the many and visa-versa. There are practical, relational and conceptual considerations for all those involved.

Balancing love and understanding of each other is an ever changing but necessary part of family life.

The Word Of Bob breaks the Moment of Silence with Nirvana's Come As You Are. (I've been asked to emphasise Zuki's 100% correct rendition of the bass line, by Zuki. Well done Zuki!).

"What's Better Than 3 songs?", "4 Songs!".

The Assembly closes on Aretha Franklin's Respect.

"What you want Baby, I got it What you need Do you know I got it? All I'm askin' Is for a little respect"

The Word Of Bob performing Shake It Off
Amy gets to lead Shake It Off. Amy was one of the "clients" during the game and Taylor Swift was there!

After the Assembly a group of us sit in Forbury Gardens sharing a picnic. Peter is dismayed at his sister's lack of understanding of probabilities.

"Why does she ask if I got back on the train from bath OK? She must know how safe they are?"

"Maybe be she's just finding a reason to say hi?" Zuki sucks helium out of an abandoned balloon and has a slightly squeakier voice than normal. We all laugh and the conversation moves on.

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