The Parable of the Hummingbird in the Stairwell

Yesterday as I was nearing the top of the stairs to my second-floor apartment, laundry basket in hand, I heard a buzzing sound from above. Expecting it to be a large moth, I looked up and saw a hummingbird flying around in the square opening just below our building’s skylight. I opened the front door of the apartment and quietly, so as not to frighten the little guy off, called to my wife for her to come check it out.

When she came out to take a look, she immediately observed, “He’s trapped up there. He keeps moving toward the window since that’s where the light is coming from. He doesn’t understand that’s not the way out.”

I had not even noticed the bird was struggling, but upon watching it further, her theory seemed to be correct. The hummingbird wasn’t going anywhere. It kept expending its energy moving toward the ceiling, expecting to penetrate it, without success.

If the bird continued like this, we figured, it would eventually exhaust itself, perhaps fall to the ground, and possibly even suffer an untimely death.

I was immediately struck by the metaphor implicit in this situation. It seemed ridiculous. This bird was 100% capable of escaping. All it had to do was fly downward a notch to below the opening in the ceiling where the skylight was, dart down the stairwell (where abundant light awaited it at the bottom) and then take off into the open air. Yet it did not seem capable of realizing this. It was convinced that up was the only way out.

Before you judge this bird’s intelligence, stop for a moment.


Convinced we know the way out of a particular problem, whatever it may be, we wear ourselves out trying repeatedly to solve the problem with a very limited worldview. And so we remain stuck. For years. Maybe even a lifetime. We are prisoners of our own assumptions, our own narrow ways of looking at things.

What made the scenario with the hummingbird especially profound to me was how easy it would have been for the bird to escape if it only knew what to do, or was at least open to trying a vastly different approach. To the bird, this problem must have seemed confounding and insurmountable. It was, after all, doing its absolute best effort-wise to free itself. Yet, the solution would have been effortless in actuality and taken no time at all. Freedom was within its immediate grasp, if it only had the capacity to realize this.

Fortunately for the hummingbird, this story has a happy ending. My wife, our downstairs neighbor, and I put our heads (and household supplies) together and helped our little friend out. We devised a makeshift butterfly net out of a broom, a wire hanger, a cloth drawstring bag, and some packing tape. I was able to gently guide the hummingbird into the net. We covered it, took it down to the bottom of the stairs, and released it. It took off at lightning speed into the sky.

Sometimes in life we are lucky enough to receive magical assistance, and a problem is solved for us through the kindness of a stranger or some other bit of good fortune. But it’s probably not wise to count on this.

The next time you find yourself in the midst of a distressing problem or difficulty, I invite you (as I do myself, as well!) to remember the parable of the hummingbird in the stairwell.

Originally published at on August 6, 2017.



Writer, musician, teacher, coach, philosopher, biped.

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