Author Archives: Joe Langen

About Joe Langen

I am a retired psychologist after thirty-five years of professional practice. I am now retired and write full time. I have published five books, all available on Amazon. I also maintain two blogs on Wordpress, Chats with My Muse Calliope and Release Your Stress and Reclaim your Life. I also distribute a free biweekly newsletter on commonsense and mindfulness topics.

Listening to the Sound of Silence

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Everybody should have his personal sounds to listen for- sounds that will make him exhilarated and alive or quite and calm. One of the greatest sounds of them all-and to me it is a sound- is utter, complete silence.

~Andre Kostelanetz~

I haven’t been watching much television lately but I did a few nights ago. Earlier in the evening I survived a breathless used car commercial featuring overlapping shouts. There was no space between sentences and little chance to process anything being said. I think the point was to get people excited about buying a car with no time to consider the decision rationally. Later in the evening I watched a new show about a group of men going to a Benedictine monastery to reassess their lives. They were to spend six weeks there and live as the monks did.

One of the chief features of monastery life is extended periods of silence. The point is for the monks to have time to listen to God and to their own thoughts. The men were invited to try the monastic way of life. When I was younger I spent several years living in a monastery. I found myself thinking back to the times when I had periods of silence built into my daily routine.

I don’t think I appreciated silence then. I was young, restless and brash. Silence was a time when I couldn’t be doing something useful. There have been many times in my life since then when I have wished to have some silence to gather my thoughts and consider the direction of my life. I had forgotten that I have a choice of how I spent my time that I could choose to have all the silence I wanted. Instead I chose to immerse myself in the cacophony of everyday life.

There is a line from the movie Cabaret, “What Good is Sitting Alone in Your Room?” What good is standing in a forest, by the seashore or in a silent snowfall? We all enter this world alone and leave it alone. Silence gives us a chance to keep in touch with the person we are between birth and death. Being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely. The alternative is to rush headlong in whatever direction the crowd is going, even if we are in a pack of lemmings headed for a cliff.

What would it be like if every person in the world took time to be alone? What would happen if everyone listened to their thoughts and then shared them with each other? What if we all listened to each other as we shared our thoughts? Most of us are in a hurry. I wonder how many of us think about where we are headed or what we will do when we reach our destinations.

Action Steps

  • Choose some time today to be with yourself in silence.
  • See how hard it is to shut off the outside world.
  • See if you can be comfortable just being alone with yourself.
  • Listen to hear your dreams, hopes and fears.
  • Later tell someone you care about what you learned.

Selection from my

Can You Hear Me Now?

Let us be silent that we may hear the whispers of the gods.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson~

If you watch television at all, you have probably seen a man appearing in the most remote corners of the earth. He stops to make a call on his cell phone asking, “Can you hear me now?” It is possible to stay connected with others no matter where we are. I recently called my brother who lives in Honolulu. He answered his phone standing on a street in Las Vegas.

Even though we can stay in constant touch, is it necessary or even desirable? Due to the danger cell phones present, it was necessary to pass a law banning their use in cars. For a while I did not notice anyone calling while driving. In recent months I have noticed an increase again. A friend of mine told me of a conference she recently attended. Despite a request to turn off cell phones, the speaker was interrupted several times by electronic renditions of various melodies announcing incoming calls.

I don’t know what the calls in the cars or at the conference were about. In an airport I overheard people detailing the minute to minute progress of their trips. I am sure some calls are substantial and some even critical. But I have a feeling many are just so people can be engaged in conversation without any particular purpose. Do we really need to be in constant contact with each other?

Another meaning of the word cell occurred to me as I was thinking about this topic. A cell is also the cubicle or room a monk lives in when he is not involved in community activities. In his case, his cell is a place of solitude rather than a means of constant connection with others. Much of my writing has focused on better communication with others. But that doesn’t mean we have to engage in it constantly.

Even when we are not on the phone, there is often a radio or TV in the background. What would it be like if we spent some time in silence? We might hear our own thoughts. Maybe we would have a chance to get in touch with our hopes, fears, dreams and wishes. We might have a chance to reflect on our interactions with others, with nature, or with God.

I have suggested to over stimulated people that they turn off all the noise around them and sit in stillness for a while. It is amazing how many people find this prospect uncomfortable.

Plato said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Without stopping to reflect on our lives, we are like cogs in a machine with no awareness of our place in the larger picture. Some factories take their workers on a tour of the whole assembly line so they can understand the place and importance of their particular contribution.

A period of silence helps us understand how we fit in with those of our fellow life travelers. We have time to gain a sense of the path God has laid out and offered for our acceptance. We also get a better idea of our decisions and their implications. Rather than mindlessly plodding through life, we will be able to make more thoughtful choices.

Action Steps:

  • Do you feel it is important to be in touch with others every minute?
  • What would it be like to have a few moments of silence?
  • Can you learn to be comfortable with your own thoughts?
  • Try tuning into your own thoughts and feelings?
  • Learn to enjoy silence.

No Is a Complete Sentence


I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure which is: Try to please everybody.

~Herbert B. Swope~

Sometimes the best thing we can say to someone is no. We have focused on understanding others’ needs and responding to them the best we can. But we sometimes go overboard meeting other’s needs and forget about our own.

We are not machines and do not have endless resources. Sometimes we are exhausted or just tired. We have our own stress. Sometimes we just need to take a break. Codependence is a term from the chemical dependency field which has taken on wider use in our culture. It means going beyond our limits to take care of others, helping them avoid taking responsibility for themselves. In the process, we do harm to ourselves. Another way to put it is being too helpful.

We have physical, mental and emotional limits. Our bodies can do just so much before we become worn out. Mentally, we may not know how to help someone in a given situation. Emotionally, we can become overwhelmed by someone else’s needs, leaving us feeling helpless.

Why would someone feel the need to go to such extremes to help others? Some of us have come from families in which our own needs were not met on a physical or emotional level. We may come to see it as our mission in life to meet others’ needs at all costs.

Some of us came from families where we had a loved one who continued to struggle with issues such as alcoholism, despite our best efforts to help. Having failed to save our loved one, we may go on to find others to save. This may account for people marrying a series of alcoholic spouses, despite swearing they would never marry someone like their alcoholic parents, or feeling they learned their lesson when their first marriage to an alcoholic failed.

Some of us took on the role of caretaker in our family while we were growing up, seeing it as our job to take care of the rest of the family or to rise to the occasion when anyone needed anything.

Melody Beattie in her book, The Language of Letting Go, gives us daily exercises to help us feel okay about ourselves. In another book, Codependent No More, she helps us learn that we don’t have to depend on others for approval. Our self worth is not dependent on how helpful we are to others. We don’t have to overreact to everything in our lives and we don’t have to fix everything, especially if we did not break it.

This is not to suggest that we should forget about everyone else and just take care of ourselves. We should look for a balance in our lives, taking care of ourselves first, and then looking at how we can help within the boundaries of our ability. In looking to help others with their needs, we should also consider whether we are capable of helping them, whether they really want or need our help, and whether they will appreciate our efforts.

Action Steps

  • How clear are you in setting limits with others?
  • How good are you at accepting others’ boundaries?
  • Do you know when you efforts are being wasted?
  • Can you protect yourself from others taking advantage of you?
  • Learn to balance generosity and self protection.

Selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage, available at Amazon.

Hear What You Want to Hear and Disregard the Rest

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.

~John Lennon~

No, the title of this reflection is not a suggestion but paraphrases a line from the Simon and Garfunkel song, The Boxer. Every time I hear it, I think about context. We don’t live in a vacuum and our words don’t live in a dictionary. Our environment influences our actions and our relationships form the context of what we say as well as hear.

The first pink hues in the sky don’t constitute the whole sunrise nor does the last hint of purple before the sun fully rises. Another example is the story of blind men touching an elephant and drawing very different conclusions about its nature depending on which part of the elephant they were exploring.

For many years, I met with couples locked in the throes of marital problems. Spouses often quoted each other, citing statements their partners had difficulty recognizing as their own. They only heard part of the story. Psychologists have a term for this, selective listening.

Why do we hear only part of what others say? One explanation lies in how we look at life. We tend to pay closer attention to statements which support or radically disagree with our point of view. The rest of the time following a conversation presents more of a challenge. We might lapse into a fog until something relevant sparks our attention.

If we agree with what people say, we compliment them for being right. If we disagree, we berate them for their ignorance. In both cases, we attend better and react more strongly if we consider a statement relevant to our lives and then, as the song says, disregard the rest.

I remember times when I took pains to explain myself carefully only to feel people completely misinterpreted what I said. I thought I should have been clearer in explaining myself. Then I realized they were listening with their ears, mind and experience, not mine. My words registered with them in the context of how they viewed life and not as I viewed it.

So what’s the point of all this? To me, it is a reminder to know my audience and how they are likely to hear what I have to say. Of course, that’s not always possible. I can’t know what other people think, especially before we start talking. My job is to be as clear as possible with my words and listen to their reaction. Then I need to find words which explain what I mean in a way others will understand. We have a choice. We can take insult when others misunderstand us or take responsibility for clarifying what we mean.

Action Steps

  • When was the last time you felt misunderstood?
  • Did you clarify what you meant or keep insisting you were right?
  • Next time, ask your audience what they heard you say.
  • Accept that language is tricky and miscommunication is no one’s fault.
  • Be patient and try explaining yourself again.

Selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage. available at Amazon

The Legacy of Our Loved Ones

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal,
love leaves a memory no one can steal.

~From a headstone in Ireland~

Sometimes when people die they leave us money. Sometimes they leave us something more important- part of themselves. We think about our loved ones to keep their memory alive. We share stories of our good times, and lessons we have learned from them while they were alive. Although these memories comfort us in our loss, there is something better we can do. Rather than just treasuring our memories or sharing them with others, we can make them an ongoing part of our lives.

How do we do that? Let’s take an example. When we are having a bad day, it’s easy to let it show. We might be looking for sympathy from others. In the process we make everyone else’s day a little worse. We drag people into our troubles.

Think about loved ones who always had a kind word for everyone no matter what their mood on a particular day. Their challenges that day did not change their cheerfulness toward everyone they met. What if we act the way they did, making a point to share a little joy with everyone no matter how we feel?

If we are in the habit of complaining, doing something different will be a challenge. It will probably be a struggle at first. How would people know we are having a bad day?  Does everyone have to know we are having a bad day? Do we really get more sympathy by playing the martyr? Maybe on the surface we do. But think about how you feel about someone who complains all the time. It is a relief when they stop complaining or find someone else to complain to.

Do you have a trait which frequently gets you in trouble or annoys others? Many times we think we are stuck with who we are and can’t really change. Maybe the truth is it is too much trouble. We might not know how to go about making changes or what else we can do.

Do you have loved ones in your memory who did not act the way you do now. What they did differently from you? Imagine watching them handle the situation which gets you in trouble. Think about what they would do and at the same time imagine what they would be thinking or feeling. Can you put yourself in their place?

The next time you are in this situation, pretend you are your loved ones. Think their thoughts, take on their feelings and act as they would. In short, be them for a little while. Although strange at first, it might work better for you as well. Maybe you could make it a new habit.

Action Steps

  • Make a list of things about yourself you would like to change.
  • Pick one out and think about how your loved one would have handled it.
  • Try being that person for a little while.
  • See if you feel any different.
  • Practice you new behavior.

Selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage, available from Amazon.

Keeping Up with Aunt Lucille

People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are.  I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.

~G.B. Shaw~

I usually tend to think of older people as relatively immobile, not too interesting in gallivanting, as they call it. But then I am not getting any younger myself. I remember my father retiring and not doing much besides sitting in his lounge chair. Several years ago when I started dating with Carol, I met her Aunt Lucille on one of the few occasions she could be found at home.

My first visit to her house was shortly before Christmas. Carol insisted I see Aunt Lucille’s basement. There, amid her husband Jake’s clock collection, were more presents that I imagined Santa Claus having in his workshop. She had been chasing around Western New York collecting them for months. I wondered why there was any concern about the economy. During our visit, she was the consummate hostess, seeing to our every need.

Some years later, she was ready to buy a new car and I expressed an interest in her old one. How many miles could an older person put on a car? I was surprised that it had traveled eighty- four thousand miles. I bought the car and named it Lucille in her honor.

Lately she has had medical difficulties which have required her to be tethered to an oxygen tank. I thought this might slow her down some. She has found it inconvenient, but has returned to as much mobility as she can manage within its limitations.

“So what?” you ask. A few years ago when I was struggling with rheumatoid arthritis I had visions of my travels coming to an end or at least being highly curtailed. Aunt Lucille’s example reminded me that with determination, quite a bit was possible regardless of circumstances.

Over the years, I have seen many people younger than her, or me for that matter, decide their active lives were over and that it was time to start living on the couch. I grew up in Rochester and have lived in Batavia for many years. During that time I have met quite a few people who were growing older. I have not seen obituaries for most of them, so I assume they are still alive. I wonder what their lives are like.

None of us know how many years we have ahead of us. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit still and wait for the end. There is always something we can do today. Aunt Lucille has plans every day, and seems restless if she is not able to get out for at least one adventure.

I have met older people who don’t express any opinions and seem not to care much about life. Aunt Lucille knows exactly what she likes and doesn’t like with very definite opinions on just about any topic. She has not let life pass her by. Why should we?

Action Steps

  • How well do you use your time each day?
  • Do you know someone who makes the most of every day like Aunt Lucille?
  • Visit that person and help him or her celebrate life.
  • Love the ones you’re with.
  • Make the best of all your life opportunities.

Excerpt from my book, Navigating Life available at Amazon.

The Priestly Gift of Kindness

In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.

~Albert Schweitzer~

Catholic priests have made headlines over the past few years in none too flattering a manner. It seems the only priests who appear in the news are those caught in shameful acts. We don’t hear much about the high percentage of priests who do not fall into this category. For the most part, their lives are not dramatic and do not command headlines. We know little about them.

Some years ago, I attended the fiftieth anniversary jubilee celebration of my uncle’s priesthood. Although I had an idea what kind of person he is, many of the details of his life remained quietly unnoticed, at least to me.

I always knew him as a man of peace. Yet he fought for our country in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. He seldom discussed his war experiences and, when he did, never talked about the terror and desperation of war.

When he returned from military service, he brought with him a toy Scottie dog which remained my constant companion for years and always reminded me of him. His disposition was very much like my grandfather’s. Father Richard has been compassionate, generous and humble, qualities noted by those who came to know him during the course of his priesthood. He never sought or found fame, wealth or power. One speaker said he gave much to others and took little. Unless you know him personally, it would be easy to pass him by without notice.

Priests view their vocations as a call to service from God rather than a choice they make. In his case, it was not as dramatic as being knocked off a horse as the bible story describes happening to St. Paul. Richard described his call as a whisper from God, an almost imperceptible voice which he was not even sure was meant for him.

As he told his story, I thought of Francis Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven, where he describes God as pursuing him. He also wrote of his fear that in following God, he would be left with nothing else in his life.

Accepting a call to the priesthood might seem like being wrenched from your family and from the community. Yet many of Richard’s family members and those whom he had come to know over the years celebrated with him, shared how he had touched their lives and told of how he had become a treasure to them.

Of all the things said of Richard at his Jubilee, I remember most the quote from Mark Twain, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” His kindness has been evident in his dealings with everyone he has met throughout his life. Surely this trait is why God called Richard to His service and has given him as a special gift to all who have come to know him. Congratulations, Uncle Dick.

Action Steps

  • Think of the kindest person you know.
  • Thank God for his or her presence in your life.
  • Encourage those who are kind to you by thanking them.
  • Think how you could be a little kinder to those who annoy you.
  • When someone is kind to you, find a way to pass it on to someone else who needs a touch of kindness.

So Long from Joe’s Political Thoughts

Before I started this blog, I occasionally posted clips or ideas I thought might be thought-provoking and helpful to my readers in considering the troubled and troublesome world of American politics.

Eventually I realized that political posts did not seem to fit comfortably with my posts of a more positive nature and started this blog to keep the two worlds separate.

I work constantly to maintain a positive outlook on my own life, especially in trying times. In the course of my professional efforts, I worked to maintain a positive outlook on my own life, especially in trying times.

I have come to see that thinking too much about American politics is like wallowing in the mud like pigs. At least that is how it has come to feel for me as I try to understand them and try to make a small contribution to the dialog among readers in an effort to help maintain their sanity as well as to keep myself on an even keel.

Continuing to stay involved with the political discourse has only dragged me down and has given me little incentive to feel more positive. I don’t see this as contributing to my own physical or mental health. It is in recognition of this trend that I have decided to discontinue my political blog and website.

Thank you to those who have indulged my thoughts about politics and my trying to bring to your attention ways to think about politics in a more positive way.

I will continue to post in my other website, Conversations with My Muse Calliope at and invite you to join me there for my continuing efforts to make sense of life and its challenges. You can also find information on books I have published at my website, Sliding Otter Publications at Happy browsing.


Celebrating a Life- Happy Birthday Russ

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Although it is generally known,
I think it’s about time to announce
that I was born at a very early age.

~Groucho Marx~

Russ Van Valkenburg was born in 1928. So were Edward Albee, Maya Angelou and Alvin Toffler. Some names are known in a small community, some nationally and some worldwide. No one is born with the intention of becoming world famous.

Babies are born every minute to the delight of their families. Each baby fascinates those of us who have lived for a while and reminds us of what it means to be human. Babies discover the world about them one marvel at a time and we have the opportunity to watch their adventures.

It’s easy to take life for granted until’ the delight of a baby or the misfortune of an illness makes us realize just how precious life is. As the years pass, we learn to appreciate our gifts such as physical strength, intelligence, creativity and social skills. We also discover our hopes and dreams. Eventually we become aware of our limitations.

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in Russ’s eightieth birthday gathering. I didn’t have to do it by myself. His wife of sixty-one years headed the group of well-wishers including family and friends of all ages. I counted myself fortunate to participate in his celebration. Having weathered the ups and downs which all of us encounter over the years, Russ played the gracious host, enjoying the presence of each guest and being sure everyone knew how happy he was to share his birthday with them.

Joy filled the day. I heard no harsh words, saw no cross glances and felt no antagonism from anyone in attendance. What would it be like to live in a world where everyone acted the way guests did at Russ’s birthday party? What if we could all get along, find a reason to celebrate with each other and enjoy each other’s company?

We tend to see ourselves as owner of our little corner of the earth rather than guests at life’s party. Maybe it’s all in our perspective. We don’t have as much control over our lives as we would like to think. Life invites us to share in the pageant of the universe and navigate with a body we use during our time on earth. We don’t know how long we will be here or what we will be able to accomplish.

We do have some control over what effect we have on people, how they think of us and how they will remember us. The house we live in, what car we drive, and how much money we accumulate aren’t that important in the long run. I consider myself fortunate to be touched by the magic of Russ’s life and to have had some small part in his life adventure so far.

Action Steps

  • If today is your birthday, stop to count your life blessings and thank God for them.
  • If it’s not your birthday, count your blessings and give thanks anyway.
  • Be thankful for the many people who have touched your life.
  • Give thanks for those who have touched your life in silent ways.
  • Celebrate the life you have to live just for today.

Political Restricted Diet

I talked before about a political fast I had decided on. I have not written much since then. I spent a weekend without viewing a single political broadcast. Then I decided it would not be good to live in a vacuum. I did not want to lose touch entirely with the world of politics and decided on a political diet.

The problem is that I find politics addicting and get easily drawn in, finding myself sitting there with my mind flooded by opinions, conflicts and positions of the various political persuasions. Even with restricted political viewing, I tend to be overwhelmed by conflicts with no reaI solutions, at least not any which we can all agree on. But I guess that is the nature of politics.

I have been in a better state of mind. I also find that it is easier to think of more pleasant topics other political wrangling. Even with my limited involvement, the sun comes up in the morning every day, maybe with some clouds. People go about their lives and I feel more settled and not tumbling in the bundle of political conflicts.

I don’t know how long I will be on this diet, but I find it nice not to be bombarded with conflict all the time. I will let you know how it turns out.