I like optimism. It’s one of the reasons I bought and read former senator and national Greens leader Bob Brown’s book ‘Optimism, reflections from a life of action’. That, and the fact that I got to know Bob a little while working as an activist in the 90’s.
Optimism is not a political memoir and those looking for political intrigue, expose, or detailed history will need to look elsewhere. Rather it is a very humane and deeply personal account of how a confused young man came to terms with his sexuality and found his place in the world. The fact that this young man helped found a national movement, a political party, two NGO’s, became the voice of left wing resistance in Australia, and went to jail at least twice along the way, is incidental to the story.
Each chapter is a complete account of a person or event that impacted the author. All are engaging and some are surprising. There is a good deal of humour and irony. Bob doesn’t preach and while his passion comes through only once does he get angry, describing the apostle Paul as an “ancient sociopath” for his condemnation of homosexual activity. Mostly the reader will encounter his sensitivity. ‘A young person is as likely to ignore their sexuality as a butterfly is to keep its wings folded, and I was 30’ he says of a time before he came out publicly.
While Bob describes himself as an atheist I have never really been convinced and after reading the book I am less convinced. ‘God is a God of love’ Bob records himself saying to a member of the Exclusive Brethren who threatens him with hell fire. Elsewhere he clearly rejects his Presbyterian upbringing but speaks positively of Jesus and of Christian social justice activists. However his Presbyterian background shines through with his intuitive grasp of materialism as an essentially religious belief system in the tradition of the pre-Christian pagan gods who must be appeased. This is the only place he delves into theology and he is, in my opinion, absolutely correct. Here is the core of his belief system and this is really the message of his book, with relevance to believers and non-believers alike.
On a final note, Bob founded The Wilderness Society with fellow ex Presbyterian Helen Gee Decades later he was MC at her funeral where we sang some beautiful old hymns. The wilderness that inspired them exists beyond human reason. It seems that when sensitive people spend bulk time in the wilderness it is hard to believe that there is nothing out there.
Optimism is available from all good bookstores.