This Sunday will mark 179 years since a young man named Frederick Douglass began his escape out of slavery by stealing onto a train outside of Baltimore. He made it to Delaware, then Philadelphia and finally New York City where he found protection from members of the Underground Railroad. But in fact, he’d made considerable progress towards his freedom years before when he sneakily learned how to read and took his own education into his hands. Standing up to his slave owner, he refused to be whipped anymore, saying later, “when a slave cannot be whipped he is more than half free.”
From these origins, Douglass would become one of the smartest men in America and one of its greatest writers and orators. Lincoln would turn to him to counsel and wisdom, not unlike a few centuries earlier, Marcus Aurelius learning from Epictetus.
Marcus would remind himself of this line in his journal: “If it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.” Frederick Douglass ought to be an example like that for the rest of us. What he managed to do—self-educating, looking slavery straight in the face and saying ‘Try me,’ and then ultimately, with bravery and courage, escaping north and helping many others to do the same—is incredible but also a kind of indictment to the rest of us. If he could do all that considering what he came from, what excuse do we have?
What he did was humanly possible. So was what Marcus did (most inspiringly to be the exception to the rule that absolute power corrupts absolutely). So is all of history’s greatness—since it was done by humans. Which means you can do it. But only if you stop making excuses and get to it.
This email was sent on September 1st, 2017.