The One Illusion We Cannot Afford To Believe In

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”

—Thich Nhat Hanh


Photo Credit: Leon Fishman via Compfight cc

I’m on the fifth floor of a hotel in Pennsylvania, waiting for an elevator to the lobby. It’s July 4th—Independence Day in America. Early morning, and I’m leaving the hotel to find a cheaper breakfast. As I wait, I become aware of piped-in music overhead. I hear lyrics that remind me of my wife: “Fortune teller said I’d be free, and that’s the day you came to me.”

I instantly reach for my phone, Google the lyrics, and the song title is the top result. I click out of Google, tap my Spotify app, search for the song, and the song playing above my head is now coming out of my phone.

I enjoy the dopamine rush of immediate gratification and I marvel at the convenience of technology. But mostly, I revel in my apparent self-sufficiency. Twenty years ago, I would’ve required the help of a number of people to identify the song, find a music store, and purchase the CD.

In 2014, I interact with no one.

In 2014, I can completely ignore how interdependent all of us are…

The Illusion of Independence

The truth is, even though I felt like I found my song independently, I was dependent upon thousands of people—perhaps even millions—to make it possible:

The device itself was created by people we’d all prefer to not think about—people working for low wages in horrible conditions half a world away. I charged the device in the hotel room, drawing on a power grid created and maintained by thousands of other people. If all those people decide to quit and go home, the power goes out and suddenly I don’t feel so independent. Another team of people is responsible for the data service I used to stream the song. The apps I used were created by a team of people and are maintained by another team of people.

But I don’t see them and I don’t hear them and I don’t touch them. I don’t look them in the eye, I don’t talk to them, I don’t shake their hand. I don’t have a chance to say thank you. So I feel like I’ve done it all on my own. I feel independent.

What I feel is an illusion.

I listen to my new song in the elevator on the way down. I step out into the lobby and look up. I see families surrounded by luggage, waiting on one thing or another before loading up the car and departing. I count thirty-four people—mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and elderly couples and young businessmen and women—and twenty-seven of them are staring downward at a device.

Twenty-seven out of thirty-four.

A lobby full of people with each other and, yet, pretending to be independent. Entertaining themselves. Solving their own problems. A lobby full of people on devices that make us feel like a world unto ourselves—self-sufficient, autonomous, and free of each other.

The illusion of independence on Independence Day.

The Freedom of Interdependence

The lobby full of device-gazing people is deeply interconnected, whether they recognize it or not.

They’re connected at an atomic level: the atoms one person breathes out are breathed in by someone else, and a shock of static electricity will transfer electrons from one person to another. They’re connected at an emotional level: when one person is cruel to another, the cruelty is taken in and eventually passed on to another human being. And they’re connected at a spiritual level: their imagined independence is adding slowly to a collective sense of loneliness and disconnection that is, I think, reaching a tipping point.

Yet we continue to swallow the illusion of independence. We believe a rebellion in the Ukraine has nothing to do with us, until one day a plane full of people flying to their summer vacation is shot down, and a surface-to-air missile confronts all of us with our interconnectedness. Why do we always wait on tragedy to remind us of our interdependence?

We don’t have to wait.

“Fortune teller said I’d be free and that’s the day you came to me.”

Mysteriously, when someone comes to us and joins us in relationship and we lose some of our independence, we gain freedom. Freedom, paradoxically, always happens in connection to another. Because freedom isn’t about being independent. Freedom is about learning to dance the dance of both our independence and our interdependence, at the same time.

Freedom is about finding the balance between the small me and a bigger we.

In relationship to each other, we learn to embrace the reality and the sacredness of our interdependence, while also respecting each other as independent, unique souls. We learn this in romance and friendship and marriage and family. In fact, any place where two or more are gathered can become a space in which we touch our independence and our interdependence at the same time.

Any place. Including a hotel lobby.

The Human Dance

I leave the hotel, find cheap smoothies for my family, and then return. The lobby is emptier, but all heads are still bowed. The illusion believed. Interdependence ignored. I get on the elevator and, just before the doors close, a young boy gets in. I’m tempted to look straight ahead. To pretend we’re both independent.

Instead, I look down, and I ask him where he’s from and where he’s going.

His mouth and his eyes both smile, as if he’s been dying for someone to look at him. And he tells me. And then he does this surprising thing: this little kid asks me the same question. And I tell him. And suddenly we feel less like strangers—less like an adult and kid separated by decades—and more like two human beings acknowledging the reality of our interdependence.

Two human beings doing the human dance.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Disclaimer: Kelly's writings represent a combination of his own personal opinions and his professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with him via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Kelly does not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accepts no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • ALEJANDR1971

    Freedom for decide to be free together someone else and the place we want to be.

  • Clayre Thompson

    In this day of devices, it is difficult to even know your neighbors. Garage door opens, car pulls out and drives away with the family next door in it. Darkened windows make it even hard to see who is in the car. The sense that I am alone builds as I go to the grocery store and find everyone busy, too busy to look up and make eye contact. Self check out and I drive back home, opening my garage door from the car, and drive in.

    Your article resounds with me. Today I will make contact with others. I will make the effort to be part of my community. Eye contact and smile, a cheery good morning, change my “how are you” to “how are you enjoying your day”. Every contact will be different and I am looking forward to it. Thanks!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Clayre, this idea of eye contact is a powerful one. I want to be intentional about that, too!

    • tim simms

      Not to be cynical, but both wordings of your greeting ask essentially the same question; a question that rarely wants a real answer. If you ask, “how are you” and truly want to hear the answer, it’s as reasonable a question as “how are you enjoying your day.”
      I’m afraid both questions fail as good conversation starters because they are too broad. Obviously, “how are you enjoying your day” is idiomatic; the literal question would ask which brain cells are responsible for pleasant feelings during the day. It even supposes that enjoyment is actually the emotion felt.
      Idiomatically, it questions how the day is going, but quite passive-aggressively holds out enjoyment as the most acceptable feeling. If I am having a bad day, and I care to be honest with you about it, I must contradict you: “Actually, I’m not enjoying my day, it’s pretty terrible.”
      That brings me to my final question: Do you really care? I believe that no is a perfectly acceptable answer.
      To me, the perfect greeting sums up exactly how I truly feel: “Good day.” Its an invocation, that hopes for a day that you may find enjoyable. I truly hope people have good days, but I’m not necessarily waiting for reports.
      If I do care, which frequently I truly do, the most pertinent question I can ask begins with, “tell me…”

  • CJ

    Good article. I quite agree with you. I see those bowed heads everywhere too, eyes glued to smartphones or tablets. I expect one day there will be implants and we will be Borg. For some reason I feel a fleeting irritation when I’m surrounded by people engaged solely with their devices. I want to say “get your faces out of those screens and talk to each other.” And perversely, I love to interrupt their connection by speaking to them. The culture of electronics has done serious damage to our ability to really understand our humanity and each other. As you say, thousands of real people have devoted time and energy into building and maintaining the infrastructural conveniences we enjoy but even that realization is only a concept. I think people will seek out genuine interaction less and less as technology enables more complex satellite connections. That loss of connection is a sad and frightening prospect. There is no perception of deep emotion when you can’t see, hear and touch someone. So I love the little conversation you had with the boy at the hotel. If we don’t use our whole beings to connect, we’ll forget how.

    • drkellyflanagan

      CJ, thanks for these observations. I have to believe there is something essential to our humanity that will not allow us to give up on real contact and connection. The tipping point I mention in the article is, I hope, us learning how to put our devices in their proper places.

  • Alexandra

    I’ve found that more and more of us are rebelling against this sad social media/technology dependency. You have a hard time engaging in a conversation with some people because they are so engrossed in their phones. How do you know what’s going on around you? What comprises your daily life when your so tuned in to what total strangers or acquaintances are up to miles or continents away? I for one will continue to interact more with people I come across daily in hopes that conversations start up. I’ve had more people show me, through their willingness to participate and share with me, that they too miss the human interaction and prefer it to a piece of technology. Wonderful article!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Alexandra!

  • Florencia

    A HUGEEEE HUGH man, from the other side of the world. This was wise, beautifull, great and USEFULL!! will translate it as soon as possible to share. THANK YOU for being so concerned in learning each day of your life and sharing. 😀

    • drkellyflanagan

      A big hug back at you, Florencia; thanks!

  • Anthony Policci

    You did a masterful job with this post. Thank you so much for your work.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Anthony, and it is truly my pleasure.

  • BenRalston

    One of the best things i’ve read in a while.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Ben!

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  • Sara

    gorgeous post. I love the way you use the story of the song in the elevator to illustrate the illusion of independence – when in reality we are more dependent on more people than ever before. It’s quite beautiful in a way, when you think of the global network of people supporting each other. It would even be more beautiful if we were aware of it and just said a little ‘thank you!’ each time we remember 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      I really like this idea, too, of being aware enough to say thank you every time we do something that was implicitly dependent upon another. Good stuff, Sara.

  • Powerful post, and so true. Thank you.
    I used the following quote in a recent post of mine. It’s applicable here as well:

    “Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals that can go it alone.” Margaret Wheatley – Author

    • drkellyflanagan

      Great quote, Don, thank you for sharing it!

  • drkellyflanagan
    • Thank you for sharing my post, Dr. Kelly! And thank you for this wonderful piece which inspired me to write the above post this morning. I admire the community of people who have gathered here, respectfully sharing ideas and striving to show up as their best selves in the world. You post reminded me to remember to look up.

  • Pepper

    Beautiful thoughts, as always. Heads bowed toward technology, while they should be bowed in prayer. Prayer connects us to God, as well as to humanity.

  • Sally Silvia

    Kelly, thank you for this post. It echos the exact thoughts I had probably 10 years ago, perhaps a bit more, while walking behind a group of 4 girls in a shopping mall. Each of the 4 was focused on their own cell phone, heads down, glancing up only to make sure they would not run into anything. Four girls who just 10 years earlier would have been giggling and reaching out to one another as they shared their most intimate dreams and experiences. It was like a punch to the gut as I realized in that moment where technology had the power to take the human race. Technology is at once amazing and frightening, a boon and a bane. Each of us must be aware and vigilant if we are to maintain our ability to interact with one another in a meaningful way. I cannot imagine life without the warmth of human interaction, but I can see where that is a possibility for future generations. Of course, by the time that happens, will they have any concept of what they are missing or will it be as much the norm for them as a friendly conversation is to us? And in the end, will it matter to them or does it just matter to us now? Huge and very interesting mind candy.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Sally, that’s one of the more disconcerting thoughts I often have about myself when using my mobile technology: what would I have been doing ten years ago in this situation. The answer is almost always healthier. Thanks for this.

  • Richard

    Hello, Kelly! Mike Morrell asked me to contact you because he really appreciates your blog and thinks you’d be an excellent candidate for his Speakeasy Blogger Network. Do you like to review off-the-beaten path faith, spirituality, and culture books? Speakeasy puts interesting books in your hands at no charge to you. You only get books when you request them, and it’s free to join. Sign up here, if you’d like:

    • drkellyflanagan

      Richard, thanks for the link!

      • Richard

        Absolutely! 🙂

  • Brooklyn626

    Dr. Kelly your posts help to keep me going in a world that’s constantly changing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Brooklyn, I’m glad my words can be an encouragement to you.

  • Chris Woodham

    Brilliant and insightful post and one which puts you in very illustrious company:

    “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty.”- Albert Einstein

    • drkellyflanagan

      I read recently, “All wisdom is borrowed.” I’m glad I could borrow a little from Einstein. What a fascinating man. He certainly doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his breadth of insight.

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  • Monica Teufel Kurtz

    The link to your twitter account under your photo is not working properly.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Monica! It was really nice of you to let me know. Should be working fine now. Best, Kelly

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  • kate bean

    thank you for this post…it speaks to something that i have long been bewildered by; the increasing isolation and human contact-aversion i observe in urban populations.) (i guess that’s what nightclubs are for: casual contact in obscenely loud conversation-unfriendly contexts))LOL
    As a rule, I resist new technology until it becomes unavoidable, TV included….and as a result i am somewhat of an inconvenience to my friends who of course all have smartphones. Everybody had a cellular when i finally broke down and got one due to repair issues with my landline (and their hysteria over not being able to keep tabs on me.). I refuse to be online every waking second.

    Have none of these people ever gone somewhere off the grid and enjoyed the absence of signal?
    I suppose you have already written an article on escape from technology for ample, uninterrupted, reflection time and reconnection with oneself…..and i missed it.
    Adjunct to this self-imposed isolation is the pretense that “wierd” people do not exist when we pass them on the street: the homeless, the beggars. It IS difficult to acknowledge people who are (in our opinion) miserable, losers, what have you…but common decency should allow us to speak kindly and say hello. or even just a nod of the head and a smile in passing can make someone who is not young and beautiful feel like they still exist. One not necessarily give money; kind wishes are also coin in the human economy of the soul collective.

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  • John Donnelly

    Dance is a great metaphor and separateness is how many of us live. We experience this life which is an illusion in my opinion and a valuable one at that. If we really knew just how connected we are, we probably wouldn’t be here.

    Not only is life an illusion, but in life we often believe things that are not true which I also call illusions. Things that don’t fit the reality of who we are or what is really happening around us. I would say separateness is one of these illusions. I would like to say that a big part of my growth is trying to see things clearly and/or have a clear understanding.

    We all seek connection. Connection is important. However, it is best that we find appropriate connection. Connection with those who can help. Rarely can I ferret out an illusion I am deep in the middle of without the help of objective people such as Dr. Flanagan.

    If you have any illusions you have identified objectively that you would like to share, please post them in the comments at and tell us about it.

  • Mari

    Thank you for writing this. It is truth we all need to be aware of.