Say 'yes' to all of life, Shortall urges at Soup & Hope

Nancy Doolittle
Soup & Hope in Sage Chapel on January 19.


Janet Shortall founded Soup & Hope in the conviction that staff members had rich personal stories to share that could inspire those who heard them. Her remarks Jan. 19 in Sage Chapel at the first of the 10th anniversary series of Soup & Hope talks – and the remarks of two other long-time Soup & Hope organizers – bore out that conviction.

Dennis Stein, former editor of Pawprint, and Jennifer Austin, health communications specialist at Gannett, introduced the 2017 Soup & Hope series by recalling its beginning.

Stein said he and former Employee Assembly member Leon Lawrence had worked with Shortall to flesh out the details of time, place and purpose for what they would decide to call “Soup & Hope.” He thanked the audience for coming and urged them to attend future talks. “Consider your job at Cornell as a passport” to the university, and instead of eating lunch at an office desk while shopping online, take part in “this amazing Cornell community,” he said.

Austin created the first poster for Soup & Hope, and has done so for each year since. Through the more than 50 speakers it has hosted, Soup & Hope has given us “time to let go of work and nourish our bodies and souls,” she said, adding that “As is true of Sage Chapel, it is within this winter series of talks that spirit and intellect meet.”

Austin said Shortall joined Cornell in 1994 as assistant director of Cornell United Religious Work. She was active with the university’s Center for Transformative Action and began serving as a crisis manager. Now an associate dean of students, Shortall directs student peer counselors in the Empathy, Assistance and Referral Services. Austin said Shortall, a Unitarian minister, has a style of “deep listening,” that helps “cultivate seeds of hope” in others. Why? “Because when we are seen as loved and worthy, all things become possible,” Austin said.

But, in opening her talk, Shortall described feelings she has struggled with since the November elections that were far removed from the optimism and hope she is known for.

Instead, Shortall has felt grief, despair and fear – a sense of feeling unhinged, numb and displaced. In preparing to give the Soup & Hope talk, Shortall said she began to explore and move through those feelings. She interwove her narrative of that exploration, guided by the wisdom of others, with a performance of Arvo Part’s “Spiegal im Spiegal” by Elizabeth Simkin and Jayne DeMakos, community volunteers, and a communal song led by Cornell staffer Leslie Schultz.

“’We cannot be grateful for all of life, but in every moment we can be grateful,’” Shortall said, quoting local monk Brother David Stendl-Rast.

Another theologian, Sharon Welch, had cautioned that “despair, if left unattended, can lead to a quiet cynicism or resignation,” Shortall said, adding that, “it is also possible to get beyond grief and despair by surrendering to it as an inevitable part of life, and move through it.”

“If we are to return to the richly textured life of the soul and to participate in the soul of the universe, we must pass through that intense region of grief and sorrow,” Shortall said. “You can’t say ‘yes’ to just part of life. It’s all connected.”

Shortall looked to Congressman John Lewis, recalling his speaking from the Sage Chapel pulpit in the 1990s. In the face of the adversity that marked his life, “I could hear then as now, his stillness, determination and his hope,” Shortall said.

What remains, Shortall said, “is the decision to care and to act,” to reach out and to learn “what it means to truly live open heartedly.”

Shortall ended her reflections affirming all that prompted her to found Soup & Hope to begin with: “I want to keep saying yes … to keep my heart open … to live with gratefulness that we have this day – this day – and we have each other.”

Editor’s note: Less than a week after the Jan. 19 Soup & Hope talk, Leon Lawrence has died. We pay tribute to the positive effect he had on the lives of those around him and at Cornell, including his role in the creation of Soup and Hope, and refer readers to the article "Leon Lawrence, Former Diversity Administrator, Dies at 74," from the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.