|College Writing – Typed Essay - suggested time—40 minutes
Consider the following quotation about suffering from the American thinker H. Richard Niebuhr. Then write an essay that defends, challenges, or qualifies Niebuhr’s assertion about the role of suffering. Support your argument with appropriate evidence from your reading, observation, or experience.
[I]t is in the response to suffering that many and perhaps all men individually, and in their groups, define themselves, take on character, develop their ethos.
Sample Student Response 1
Suffering is an intrinsic part of the human experience. The American activist Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that unmerited suffering could be redemptive, and in this belief he identified two aspects of suffering: there are those who deserve to suffer and there are those who suffer unjustly. Men and women who suffer undeservedly may be able to transform their pain into something constructive and ultimately good. A second consequence of suffering can be noted in H. Richard Niebuhr’s observation about the individual’s response to suffering and the role that response plays in self-definition and the development of an ethical identity. In life and in literature, it is evident that humanity’s response to suffering does contribute to the creation of both individual and group identity.
On a grand scale, there is perhaps no greater suffering than that associated with genocide. In the twentieth century, there have been numerous genocides, from the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia to the horrific killings in Rwanda. The most systematic and carefully documented genocide was the Holocaust during World War II, in which six million Jews were annihilated by the Nazis, who also killed millions of other people in their quest for racial purity. This was not the first time that Jewish people were subjected to discrimination and persecution, but it was the most comprehensive and destructive. The suffering experienced by the Jewish people prior to the Holocaust had an undeniable influence on their understanding of themselves as a group: in early Jewish religious writing describing the Exodus from Egypt, there is a phrase that “in every generation there has been one who has tried to kill us.” This sentence is ritually spoken at Passover around family dining room tables, and Jews are commanded to recite this sentence as a reminder of the fragile position Jewish people hold in the world.
In the middle of the twentieth century, that fragility was made all too apparent, when Jewish people were put to death for the sole “crime” of being Jewish. The massive scale of the suffering in the Holocaust elicited complex responses from Jewish people. On the one hand, Jews were accustomed to being targeted for their differences, and their adherence to their religious beliefs, their dietary regulations, and their way of living was a source of pride for them, even as it drew hostility from neighbors. On the other hand, Hitler’s broad and organized destruction of Jews caused Jewish people to question God’s purpose in allowing such an atrocity to happen. The religious uncertainty—and whether a Jew denied God’s existence or affirmed the unknowability of God as a result of the Holocaust and the suffering it brought—went a long way to establishing both the individual and the group’s religious, ethical, and cultural definition.
On a smaller scale and in a different context, an individual’s suffering contributed to the character of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Unfairly forced to wear a scarlet “A” as punishment for her adultery, Hester was ostracized by her Puritan peers and forced to raise her illegitimate daughter, Pearl, in solitude while her partner in crime, Arthur Dimmesdale, suffered more privately but perhaps no more profoundly. The two different responses to suffering in Hawthorne’s novel illustrate King’s statement clearly. Hester believed her husband dead and was genuinely and passionately in love with Dimmesdale when she consummated her relationship with him. Her suffering was extensive and unmerited, the result of the Puritans’ scapegoating more than anything else. However, because of her isolation from this judgmental group of people, she learned about strength and principles, and Hawthorne often depicted her as an attractive and virtuous woman. Dimmesdale, though, suffered privately for his cowardice and his sin, and, aided by the devilish torment of Roger Chillingworth, sickened and weakened and ultimately died as a result of his perpetual suffering. His failure to acknowledge his sin led to a suffering that defined him as passive and weak throughout the novel, in contrast to Hester’s strength and bravery. These two characters represented different sides of the same sin, and their two different forms of suffering contributed to the development of their character and their ethos.
Suffering can be deserved or unmerited, but it is the human response to that suffering that defines us as individuals and as groups.
Sample Student Response 2
Why people suffer is a mystery and a riddle, and it raises an interesting question: What do a grandmother, a runaway slave, and a homeless addict have in common? The answer is, “They all suffer, and their suffering helps define them and develop their ethos.” H. Richard Niebuhr is correct when he says that a person’s response to suffering causes them to take on character. I have seen this to be true with my own grandmother in her struggle with cancer, Jim, from Huckleberry Finn, and in the homeless people I volunteer with in a local shelter.
My Nana was diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago. She was a heavy smoker for most of her life, before people knew that smoking caused cancer, and she quit cold turkey after her husband died but it was too late. The damage had been done. She went through some surgeries and eventually had almost a whole lung removed. She was on oxygen for most of the last year of her life, and when her doctors told her that her cancer had spread even further and that she would need another surgery, she said “Forget it.” She knew what another surgery would mean for her (she was almost eighty years old): painful recovery in a hospital with little chance of real success. She preferred to spend her last months the way she wanted to spend them, and her decision revealed her true character.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the runaway slave Jim suffered a great deal, both as a slave and at the hands of Huck and Tom Sawyer, who made freeing him from the Phelps’ plantation into a game. They did not realize that they were playing with a human life. Despite the bond Jim had formed with Huck on their journey down the Mississippi River, Huck went along with the persuasive Tom and added unnecessarily to Jim’s suffering, but Jim, ever loyal, accepted Huck’s reasons for delaying in freeing him. The extent of Jim’s suffering showed how he was a good friend and didn’t question the judgment of a white boy, even though he himself had more practical knowledge.
I, too, have tried to help people who are suffering, but not in the way that Huck Finn did. On Saturdays, I volunteer at a downtown shelter for homeless people, many of whom suffer from addiction to drugs or alcohol. These men and women have brought their own suffering upon themselves and upon their families (there are often young children here, too). Their response to their suffering has been to just accept it, rather than trying to overcome their addictions or change their lives. At the shelter, we provide meals and basic job skills training. Lots of people take the meals. Some take the job training, but few can hold a job because they spend whatever they make on drugs or alcohol, and the cycle of suffering continues. That says a lot about their character, and that they don’t have a good work ethos. When I talk to these people, I can’t understand why they can’t find a way to put an end to the suffering of themselves and their families.
Suffering isn’t inevitable, but when it happens, how we respond to it says something about our character. My Nana fought bravely against cancer, but she also knew when it was time to stop fighting and to accept her death. Jim knew suffering as a slave, but he also suffered patiently at the hands of Huck and Tom. In the end, he was rewarded for his loyalty and earned his freedom. Some people, like addicts, cannot overcome their suffering and spiral helplessly into greater suffering. In all three cases, though, the responses to suffering do what H. Richard Niebuhr suggested: “define themselves, take on character, develop their ethos.”
Comments on Student Response 1
The paper opens with a strong and specific introduction that leads neatly into Niebuhr’s point. In addition, the analysis of King’s idea of suffering is nuanced. The essay points out the two forms of suffering to which King referred. The rephrasing of Niebuhr’s point as “self-definition and the development of an ethical identity” does more than merely parrot back his words. The thesis indicates from where the essay will draw its support: the writer’s experience and literature. The strongest supporting paragraphs are paragraphs 3 and 4. Applying the “the thesis is true because” rule, paragraph 2 responds: “The massive scale of the suffering in the Holocaust elicited complex responses from Jewish people.” This reason is then supported by two responses that the Jewish people had to the suffering they endured during the Holocaust. Paragraph 4 is strong because it, too, presents reasons in support of the thesis. Hester “learned about strength and principles, and Hawthorne often depicted her as an attractive and virtuous woman.” And, as regards Arthur Dimmesdale, “his failure to acknowledge his sin led to a suffering that defined him as passive and weak throughout the novel, in contrast to Hester’s strength and bravery.” Unfortunately, it is not clear what the essay means by “The two different responses to suffering in Hawthorne’s novel illustrate King’s statement clearly.” At this point in the essay, a reference to a statement in paragraph 1 must take the time to reiterate to what the statement refers. Paragraph 2 does little more than enumerate the groups who have experienced suffering. The paragraph does not explain how this suffering “contributes to the creation of both individual and group identity” as the thesis argues. The conclusion reads as if the writer ran out of time. It adds little to the essay and in fact merely repeats the thesis. A strong conclusion can tip a borderline essay to a higher score. The syntax and diction in the essay are clear and accurate. The essay indicates a mastery of the mechanics of writing.
Comments on Student Response 2
This essay shows that the author does not fully understand the quotation from Niebuhr and as a result, it does not fully address the prompt. The introduction poses a rhetorical question, which is best avoided. Your job is to answer the question the prompt raises, not raise more questions. Students mistakenly believe that rhetorical questions in introductions are attention getters; they are not. They are attention losers. The first paragraph also lacks a thesis. It states, “H. Richard Niebuhr is correct when he says that a person’s response to suffering causes them to take on character. I have seen this to be true with my own grandmother in her struggle with cancer, Jim, from Huckleberry Finn, and in the homeless people I volunteer with in a local shelter.” Whether or not Niebuhr is correct is irrelevant. Your job is to take a position on Niebuhr’s claim. The essay does not do this. Paragraph 2 is no more than a summary of the grandmother’s experience with cancer. The paragraph does not discuss how this suffering altered the character of the grandmother or how this suffering helped her to redefine herself. Further, the use of “my Nana” is an inappropriate register. This is an academic essay; the register should be formal. Paragraph 4 suffers from the same problem as paragraph 2. It is a summary of the writer’s experiences at a homeless shelter. Paragraph 3 is a bit more successful than the other, but it too lacks reasons in support of an argument. The writer states, “The extent of Jim’s suffering showed how he was a good friend and didn’t question the judgment of a white boy, even though he himself had more practical knowledge.” This is not analysis. “Showing” qualities of a good friend is not the same as providing reason for how suffering affects the character and ethics of groups and individuals. The last paragraph begins well with the phrase: “Suffering isn’t inevitable…” but then it merely repeats the prompt. The opening phrase gave the writer the opportunity to go beyond what the essay was supposed to address. The conclusion might have focused on why suffering is not inevitable but how human beings are responsible for much of the suffering that exists in the world. Here is an example of what the conclusion could have included:
Suffering isn’t inevitable. In fact, much of the suffering in the world is caused by the conscious choices of humankind, itself. Though it is true that suffering can teach us lessons about life and ourselves, suffering can be so intense that our humanity is destroyed, leaving us empty inside. The world is filled with examples of suffering from which any lesson learned is not worth the pain endured. Rape in the Congo and genocide in Rwanda are contemporary examples in which the suffering experienced may well be beyond not only the human ability to learn and to grow but to live and to endure.