Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Hummingbird Story

The hummingbird story was told by Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai in May 2006 at a conference on poverty elimination in Montreal. The story she shared is:

One day a terrible fire broke out in a forest - a huge woodlands was suddenly engulfed by a raging wild fire. Frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. As they came to the edge of a stream they stopped to watch the fire and they were feeling very discouraged and powerless. They were all bemoaning the destruction of their homes. Every one of them thought there was nothing they could do about the fire, except for one little hummingbird.

This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up a few drops of water and went into the forest and put them on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again. All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, "Don't bother,it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too tiny, it’s only a drop, you can't put out this fire."

And as the animals stood around disparaging the little bird’s efforts, the bird noticed how hopeless and forlorn they looked. Then one of the animals shouted out and challenged the hummingbird in a mocking voice, "What do you think you are doing?"

And the hummingbird, without wasting time or losing a beat, looked back and said, "I am doing what I can."

When speaking to groups about homelessness my goal is to engage them on an emotional level through story-telling and connecting with the words we use to identify, name, and label the human beings experiencing homelessness.

I ask the group to give one word each that they would use to describe themselves. I tell them a word I would use is 'passionate'.

Quickly, people call out words -- no matter their age -- yesterday was a group of Grade 8 students -- that I write on a whiteboard.

Ebullient. (she looked it up on her Iphone to make sure she had the right definition)
Gamer. (this was a Grade 8 boy)
And many more...

On the other side of the list people have given me, I write the word, HOMELESS, at the top and ask them to give me the words they use to describe people experiencing homelessness. Inevitably they start with the more gentle words:

Got nothing.
Mentally ill
Mental health

I encourage them to say the words they use in their heads, or with friends as well. To speak the unspeakables we all think when presented with someone whose life, condition, state of being is beyond the boundaries of our societal norms or whom we simply do not get, or are afraid of, or do not understand.

No good
and many more...

You are not alone in these words, I tell them. They are, in my experience, universal. They are words we all think and speak to describe people whose lives we do not understand. They are the labels we use to position someone in our minds so that a) we don't have to think about them; b) we don't have to do anything about them; c) we don't have to learn more; d) we can avoid empathizing... and a host of other reasons to help us not connect with those whose lives are beyond the pale of our experience.

And then, I talk about the words those experiencing homelessness use to describe themselves -- words I've heard in classes and talks I've had with the people we serve at the shelter where I work.

They are the same. Strong. Intelligent. Creative. Kind. Considerate. Compassionate...

All the words we use to describe ourselves are the same words people experiencing homelessness use to describe themselves.

And then, I share the words those experiencing homelessness tell me are the ones they believe, and in many instances have heard, people in our communities use to describe them.

They are the same as the second list -- mostly without the nice words -- Bums. Lazy. Deadbeats. Drunk. Good for nothing. Scary. Crazy.

There is power in our words. There is power in our thinking.

Change one thought -- you could change your world and someone else's.

Working in the homeless sector can feel like that hummingbird dropping water on a forest fire. There is so much to do.

We must do what we can.

I invite you today to think of one thought you hold that denigrates, undermines, or belittles someone else.

In the creative space of your mind, put yourself in the place of that person. Imagine your self telling that person (whom you are pretending to be in your mind) that word or thought you hold.

It's hard, isn't it? You don't want to say it.

Then don't.

Find a more caring, compassionate, loving, kind thought to describe them - and set yourself free to do what you can to create a more caring, compassionate, loving and kind world around you.



Joyceann Wycoff said...

What a gift you gave those kids ... and us.

Louise Gallagher said...

thanks Joyce -- it is always a gift when I see kids, adults, others 'get it'. Get that the words we use can limit ourselves and others or... they can set us free.


Anonymous said...


you are, tirelessly, a hummingbird

and you remind us, we are all hummingbirds

we MUST do what we can

in whatever small ways



Louise Gallagher said...

Thank you Mark -- you made me smile. I love that you sahre your hummingbird ways too!


Maureen said...

You do so much, Louise. It's especially important that we focus on children, how we teach them to show compassion, to see good. And what a difference it makes makes when we choose to be more kind and loving.

Sandra Heska King said...

So much power in a word.

S. Etole said...

you do a real service in equipping and teaching ... all of us

Anonymous said...

i hope that the adults were listening too...
thank you for the reminder.

Love n.

The words of the reckless pierce like swords,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

proverbs 13:18

Josie said...

A breathtakingly powerful lesson! Everyone needs to read this! It certainly made me stop and think about some of the silent labels I apply to others around me.

Brandi said...

I loved this story!

You may not be able to change the world, but if you cn help others to change or shift their thinking, that is some pretty sweet progress.

Hope you got caught up on some sleep, little hummingbird!


Louise Gallagher said...

Maureen -- you are so right -- to end homelessness, we must begin with the children.

Louise Gallagher said...

Words are so powerful Sandra that sometimes, they kill -- spirit, hope, dreams, ideas, possibilities...

Louise Gallagher said...

thanks Susan -- I love visiting your place where I learn so much as well -- especially about tenderness.

Louise Gallagher said...

nance marie -- that is a beautiful proverb -- and yes, the adults were listening. One of the teachers had tears in her eyes and asked if I'd come to their school to talk to the entire student body. It begins with one small act... and we do what we can!

Louise Gallagher said...

I caught myself today Josie -- I had to reframe my thoughts to be more loving and compassionate with a co-worker -- it is good when i catch myself. Then I don't have to carry around the 'negative' feelings my unhealthy thinking creates!

Louise Gallagher said...

hey Brandi -- yup -- caught up on sleeping -- thought it's 11:30 and I'm wide awake and have a 7:30 meeting int he morning. Must get to bed!

And yes, when we shift one perspective, others cascade along.

Hugs everyone.

Fi said...


Oh so true and oh so powerful!

Changing the world starts with the hummingbird and our children truly are the future

As usual your posts make us all stop, think and if necessary correct our ways. The people you work with are truly blessed to have you. As`are we.

Ruth said...

I am so moved by this, Louise. The exercise in both groups is powerful. But when you shared the words of the homeless describing themselves, I had chills. It is such a great lesson for us to remember about every "group" of people we generalize about, mostly because we don't understand or know an individual who we think represents that "group."

I agree with you utterly, that our words matter, and we must be very, very careful how we use them.

Thank you abundantly for this.

trisha said...

fabulous story and post louise. doing what we can instead of sitting and doing nothing is always better.


CZBZ said...

What a great post! Thank YOU!