What does it mean to be a human being? How can I be better?

By Teresa Xu

These are broad questions that I explore in the memoir Beyond the Surface: Empathy, Identity, and Storytelling. 

I think being human is about experiences—experiences and stories. Stories can’t really be defined into neat, perfectly strict compartments; they are like wisps of air, malleable and intangible, complex and full of undefinable emotions. 

Stories come in multiple forms. Written, oral, visual, audiovisual—I can’t name them all. This book explores just some of the infinite ways to express stories. 

Written can include countless types of writing, including an article like this; indeed, I dedicate a chapter to the importance of personal writing. But I focus on some forms of poetry that I feel are less traditional and more modern, like Instapoetry—short free verse, often all in lowercase, that can be shared in social media posts. Spoken word poetry also adds a multimedia element to traditionally written stories.

There’s music, which can include written lyrics or no words at all, just pure melody. Music spells out stories in subtle but powerful ways, as anyone who has listened to anything can probably tell you. I’m no expert, but I think anyone who has watched a movie can get a sense of how music enhances the story.

There are story exchanges, or story circles, or any number of names which reflects perhaps the oldest form of storytelling: simply speaking to others, sharing how your day went, how an event shaped your life. The type of story exchange practiced by Narrative 4 is the most powerful that I’ve witnessed, but truly anything could work. You could share your narrative on a podcast too, or a YouTube video, adding elements of modern media to amplify your reach. But at any rate, sharing stories aloud will always be powerful.

And there’s language itself, the root of most, if not all, stories, however language is expressed. Language is so beautifully complex and interwoven with identity and storytelling. The specific inflections, tones, accents of our voices or written words tell a story about who we are without us even knowing it. I could write pages of essays solely about the impact of language on life and who we are—and I did try to capture some of my ever-evolving thoughts about language, place, and identity in this book.

And there’s the deep, inexplicable, resonant connection inherent in all these forms of storytelling. There’s the connection that allows us to relate to and empathize with each other, as well as the reflection and thought that helps us understand ourselves: our own intersectional identities. Stories, not statistics, remind us of our common humanity and emotions, no matter who or where we are.

If you, too, seek and revel in genuine connection and appreciation for humanity and this world; if you feel like gushing about how amazing the arts are, how moved you are by music and literature, how beautifully even negative emotions can be expressed; if you want to simply reflect on your own life and the various intersectional influences that make you who you are, I hope you check out this book.

Find more at:

Instagram @beyondthesurface_teresaxu
LinkedIn is https://www.linkedin.com/in/teresa-xu/