In one of his letters, Seneca writes about a famous Spartan boy who was taken prisoner. The boy was to be turned into a slave, yet he resisted. In his native Doric he kept shouting: “I shall not be a slave!” When the boy was given orders to fetch a disgusting chamber pot he leaped up and smashed his head against the wall, breaking his skull. In this way he defied his masters, he never became a slave, not even for just a moment.

The boy’s situation was the worst possible—he was physically imprisoned without any hope of escape. The only possible outcome for him was to become a slave—or so his captors thought. It’s likely your situation is different, and yet many of us are slaves to other things—things that suck up all our most precious resource: our time. They are money, impulses, fear, anxiety and other people’s petty dramas. You need not surrender you time to them. Your life lies in your hands and freedom from slavery can be obtained instantly should you choose to take it. Seneca:

Surely you can adopt the spirited attitude of that boy and say, ‘No slave am I!’ At present, you unhappy creature, slave you are, slave to your fellow-men, slave to circumstance and slave to life (for life itself is slavery if the courage to die is absent).

In The 50th Law, Robert Greene gave a good example of this level of defiance in modern times. In 1966 a successful middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was arrested for murder and sentenced to three consecutive life terms. He maintained his innocence and was released 19 years later. Those 19 years could have been completely lost to him and could have broken him down, but he chose to defy his captors. Greene writes:

He decided that he would defeat the system—he would use the years in prison to develop his self-reliance so that when he was freed it would mean something. For this purpose he devised the following strategy: He would act like a free man while surrounded by walls. He would not wear their uniform or carry an ID badge. He was an individual, not a number. He would not eat with the other prisoners, do the assigned tasks, or go to the parole hearings. He was placed in solitary confinement for these transgressions but he was not afraid of the punishments, nor of being alone. He was afraid only of losing his dignity and sense of ownership.

Rubin Carter spent those 19 years reading books. He wrote his autobiography and taught himself law, which helped him fight for his case. He spent this time to develop himself, his skills and his self-reliance, and when he was finally released he came out a stronger man.

The self imposed prison of anxiety, fear, impulse and anger makes slaves of all of us. But these things are all internal and are all under your control (and even should the slavery be external, remember the Spartan boy—you can end that too). Defy them and set yourself free.

Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

October 2009