The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Mediocrity and the Epidemic of Complacency

Madonna has a new call-to-action to express what freedom means to you.

Two decades since the release of her provocative Sex book Madonna is pushing the envelope again with a psychologically complex and grisly 17-minute film. I watched the film this afternoon for the first time and was very inspired, but also disturbed by the message. Have you seen it yet?

The film is dedicated to "those who have been persecuted, are being persecuted, or may be persecuted. For the color of their skin. Their religious beliefs. Their artistic expression. Their gender. Or their sexual preferences. And, anyone whose human rights have been violated."

On September 24, 2013 Madonna released a collaborative effort with Steven Klein called the Secret Project Revolution. Through the "Art for Freedom" website Madonna encourages people to "express your personal meaning of freedom and revolution in the form of video, music, poetry, and photography."

Recently, I wrote a Psychology Today blog titled “The Neuroscience of Madonna’s Enduring Success.” In that blog I talk about the fact that Madonna was the top-earning celebrity of 2013. In a candid behind the scenes interview with Madonna and Eddie Moretti, Madonna shares the childhood experiences, role models, and other influences that made her a non-conformist and gave her an enduring fighting spirit. The interview is long, but rich with insights into the mindset and psyche of the most successful pop star on the planet. I highly recommend watching it for clues on how you can maximize your potential.

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In the Moretti interview, Madonna shares the psychological trauma she experienced in different cities during her 2012 MDNA tour that triggered the creation of the Secret Project Revolution. The bottom line of the interview is how fear drives hate and bigotry and that consciousness of people is not evolving in a digital age. Madonna askes the question, "What does freedom mean to you?" I personally would have to borrow the words of Betty Cuthbert who said, "I always felt free when I ran. I suppose that's what was good about it." When do you feel free?

Madonna used her St. Petersburg show to speak out against legislation adopted by the city that imposes fines for spreading homosexual "propaganda" that could "damage the health, moral and spiritual development" of minors and arrested 87 concert attendants for showing “outward signs of being gay."

In Russia the government tried to silence Madonna’s gay rights message and support of “Pussy Riot.” She received death threats and was sued $1 million. While performing the concert in Tel Aviv there was a threat of war with Iran... in France she was booed by skinheads planted by a fascist leader who threw beer bottles onto the stage... In South America she had to travel everywhere in heavy bullet proof cars because of corruption, gangs and a prevalence of guns.

Madonna used sound checks before the concerts to connect with fans face-to-face. She says that in America the most alarming thing for her was the feeling of complacency in the eyes of young people attending her concert. A recent Wall Street Journal article titled “The Slowest Generation” points out an epidemic of complacency and mediocrity among American runners.

Being a competitive athlete gave me the confidence to join ACT-UP and take to the streets in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I believe that nurturing the competitive spirit gives people chutzpah and also makes people less likely to be politically complacent.

"If you're going to get just as much praise for doing a four-hour marathon as a three-hour, why bother killing yourself training?" asked Robert Johnson, a founder of LetsRun.com, adding that, "It's hard to do well in a marathon if your idea of a long session is watching season four of 'The Wire.'" The article points out that, “instead of fighting back, the young increasingly are thumbing their nose at the very concept of racing. Among some, it simply isn't cool.”

The WSJ article was based on an original blog by Tony Reavis called “Dumbing Down, Slowing Down” which uses running times to illustrate the same nationwide epidemic of complacency that Madonna saw in the eyes of concert attendants. I believe that striving for your personal best in athletics is a terrific way to break the cycle of complacency and apathy.

Conclusion: Revolution of Love

The resounding theme of the Secret Project Revolution is a call-to action to fight for human rights, to inspire people to take action and to "Express Yourself." Martin Luther King Jr. said famously, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” What can you do to make a difference and drive out hate and darkness?

I wrote my first blog for Psychology Today titled “Underdog Powers: Activate!” in September of 2011. It was a call-to-action to inspire anyone who feels marginalized to use physical activity, social connection and self-expression to empower themselves. In the acknowledgements of my book The Athlete’s Way, I thank Madonna “for laying the brainchips of excellence and fearlessness in my head when I was seventeen and for being rocket fuel during every workout ever since.”

Watching #SecretProjectRevolution today made me very grateful for everything Madonna has done to inspire and empower the underdogs of the world, myself included.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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