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How To Be Free

Daily Stoic Emails

Ruby Doris Smith died at age 25 of cancer. It was an unfair death, concluding a short, unfair life. For two and half decades on this earth–from 1942 to 1967–she experienced the brutal day-to-day realities of Jim Crow segregation. Yet her tombstone laments none of this. Instead, it codifies into stone one of the most basic principles of the SNCC, the civil rights organization she had been so dedicated and active in during her short life. “IF YOU THINK FREE,” it reads, “YOU ARE FREE.”

This epigram has a profound double meaning. It means first, that the young, radical activists of the civil rights movement had decided quite simply that they would refuse to be segregated any longer. Rejecting the laws of the day as illegitimate, they sat where they wanted for lunch, they rode buses as they wanted, they organized and marched and lived as they wanted. And with time, under their unrelenting pressure, these laws fell one by one.

But the other meaning of the quote is even more important: Despite all the injustice and the violence and the hatred that surrounded them, these activists strove to embrace the most freeing force there was: Love. Resentment, reprisal, bitterness–these would have been perfectly understandable emotions for someone like Ruby Doris Smith to have. They also would have been their own form of slavery.

Epictetus, who experienced great cruelty and tyranny during his life in Rome, came to the same understanding. He realized that freedom wasn’t about legal status–although that was important. Instead freedom was a state of mind. It was a choice. What did it matter if he broke free from his master if he was still ruled by his passions? What good was power if one relinquished power of the most basic things in life (thoughts, desires, opinions)? He understood that he had to free himself first if his eventual manumission was going to mean something. And that it was the “chief task in life,” he would famously say, to do so. To choose to be free. To think he was free.

And so it goes for us. This is also our chief task–to, however dark the circumstances, free ourselves. To think free just like Ruby Doris Smith and Epictetus did. If you do, you are.