Practice Makes Permanent (Bionic Birdwatching)

In last night’s episode of Bionic Woman, Jamie Sommers found herself stuck in the role of the only person available to take over the role of a dead assassin whose mission was to kill a nuclear scientists about to sell state of the art technology to North Korea. Great throw-away lines abounded, such as Jamie’s question “Don’t they already have a nuclear bomb?” to which Jonas replies “This one would actually work.”

Jamie cannot bring herself to pull the trigger, since she cannot do what Jae recommended, and not think of the target as a person. She and her sister had spent a few hours on a gondola with this man, Vincent, and his son. It is when we dehumanize others that we cease to value their lives the way we would want ours to be valued, forgetting that devaluing and dehumanizing also works both ways.

When Jae promises that “it gets easier”, Jamie wisely responds “That’s what I’m afraid of”.

I’ve recently heard a violin teacher say “practice makes permanent“. We all know the more familiar “practice makes perfect“, but in fact practice only makes perfect if you are practicing correctly. Bad habits can also become permanent, and if learning is hard, the unlearning that sometimes needs to take place before we can learn is harder.

I’m sure other birdwatching fans noticed the sound of an Eastern Wood Pewee – which may suggest that the episode wasn’t actually filmed in Montana, where it was set. We had a pewee along the creek behind our house for most of this past summer, and its entertaining song is highly recognizable to me now. I’ve learned to recognize a lot of the regular avian visitors to our bird feeder and our neighborhood, with time and some effort. Practice makes permanent.

(I have a feeling the pewee annoyed the film crew, who tried to get as much footage without its distracting call as they could. They give it a final salute at the very end of the episode, suggesting that it made an impression on them.)

Confucius had some wise words to offer about practice and permanence towards the end of his life:

At fifteen I set my heart on learning; at thirty I was firmly established; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the will of heaven; at sixty I was willing to listen to it; at seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing what is right.

What we do regularly will become second nature to us – even the habit of not spending time on any one thing.

To make a choice to not let killing someone become easier, to not dehumanize, is commendable in itself. To do it consistently, so that it becomes second nature to treat others as we would want to be treated, is a real accomplishment. Well done, writers of the script for Bionic Woman – I hope you get the raise you are seeking!

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  • Drew Tatusko

    I’ve just started watching the show and find the writing for that as well as Life very compelling (I think you have posted on Life in the past as well).But your post here reminds me of one of the most compelling quotes for me in all of film. It is when Capt. Miller is chatting with Pvt. Ryan while preparing to defend a bridge in a small French town. Miller says this after reflecting on how he used to be a teacher: “All I know is that with every person I kill, I feel farther away from home.”Poignant stuff.

  • Richard M

    I having been thinking lately about this ethic implied here. I personally like Martin Buber’s expression best (I-Thou vs I-It) though Kant also claimed it was our ethical imperative to treat others as ends, not means. I would guess this idea probably has roots father back than that — Jesus, Hillel, Confucius, and others seem to say something similar, as you suggest.I am continually impressed with how difficult it is to actually live this. As a psychiatrist, I cant help but cast it in psychological terms where, for me, the obstacles to living this way really begin to stand out. An Austrian-American psychoanalyst named Heniz Kohut developed a school of thought within psychoanalysis known as self-psychology that speaks to this. It emphasizes, basically, the role that other people in our lives play in maintaining our “sense of self” — the all-purpose category for feeling worthwhile and valuable, intact & “together”, vital, confident, secure, and, critically, able to empathize with others; sort of a general sense of well-being. The idea is that when we have to feel an intact sense of self else we are overwhelmed, feel fragile, and anxious. If we cant provide it for ourselves, we will seek others to do it for us. This makes others into an “object” (Kohut called it “selfobject”) in the sense that we use them to meet our own needs, rather than seeing them for who they are as an independent subject.Children, according to Kohut, we “use” others in their lives (mainly parents) more or less exclusively this way. I.e., childrens psychological needs are so great, and their “self” only emerging, so much that others are important almost entirely for what they (others) do for them (the child). Children require an empathic responsiveness from important others to develop the ability to maintain, in the long term, their own self-esteem and sense of self.If things go right in development, these functions get internalized and healthy adults can do this “on their own” — though Kohut was careful to point out that we always need others for the emotional needs they can meet for us, to *some* extent.Ive skated over a lot of the details (for brevity) but the upshot is that there is a distinction that can be drawn between seeing others for what emotional role they can fill for us, and seeing them “needless”ly.A naturalist like me would say it is unhealthy and probably impossible to ever be fully “needless” — we are all social animals, built that way, and thats part of who we are. The trick is to be able to balance these things, which means we have to be psychologically healthy enough for others to be Other to us, rather than reservoirs of emotional support.Perhaps this is something the idea of God can do. Others have written about this, the “emotional function” of God — i.e., supporting our sense of self — and perhaps seeing ourselves reflected in the eyes of God (imago Dei) can help support us, freeing us from needing others to do this *quite* as much. So the question, then, if any of this is correct, for the health of a religion would be: what kind of relfection do we see in the eyes of our God?