Published by Broadleaf Books on March 7, 2023
Genres: Disability Theology, Healthcare, Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Memoir, Theology
We are living in a world that is sick. Both literally sick, with 60 percent of adults in the US living with a chronic illness and rising rates of autoimmune diseases in particular, including long COVID, and figuratively sick, facing ever increasing rates of burnout, anxiety, and disconnection.
As a writer, activist, and theology student, Lyndsey Medford was used to critiquing unsustainable medical, environmental, economic, and social systems from a theoretical perspective. But when her autoimmune disorder roared out of remission, she discovered that her own body's systems lived at the very real vortex of all those systems' dysfunction.
Learning to cooperate with her body would require her to change every aspect of her life--and in the process, to seek a radical reimagining of the world, from a place where sickness is an individual affliction to an interdependent ecosystem where sustainability is a community way of life. In this beautiful and inspiring book, Medford draws on her experiences with a rare autoimmune disease to illuminate the broader lessons we need to learn, in order to heal what ails us individually and communally. Whether our burnout stems from illness, systemic racism, poverty, or simply sin's separation, we're all in need of hope, and we are called to heal together.
My Body and Other Crumbling Empires points out the beauty and ubiquity of our limitations; the importance of accessibility, broadly construed; the interconnected nature of individual and public health; and the badly needed wisdom we have gained from living with our particular bodies.
Lyndsey Medford shares her chronic illness journey in this book, writing about the ways that her body has challenged her deepest assumptions about faith, the world, and what it means to be successful. She acknowledges the ways that her racial, social, and economic privilege have advantaged her within the healthcare world, but even so, she has faced deep challenges in advocating for herself, finding solutions, and choosing to slow down her life and pursue healing in a world that demands constant hustle and casts aside whoever can’t keep up.
She writes about how deeply broken our understanding of health is, as we parse out our bodies into individual parts addressed by different doctors who don’t communicate with each other or understand the whole picture, and she writes about how sick bodies highlight the fissures in our society. Sick people are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, revealing the deep problems with our economic, healthcare, environmental, and food systems.
My Body and Other Crumbling Empires: Lessons for Healing in a World That Is Sick is an incredibly eloquent, unique, and thought-provoking book. Medford writes from her perspectives as a sufferer, a theologian, and an activist, reflecting on deep societal issues and how difficult it is for sick people to get the care they need, or to even allow themselves to slow down in a world that demands constant labor for economic stability and/or personal identity.
Medford writes about the damage done to people who can’t operate according to Western society’s norms, and she reflects about how both secular society and her upbringing in the church raised her to believe that she was destined to achieve great things through her own talent and determination. She shows how, despite her lofty expectations, she has learned to treat healing as a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself, rather than treating her body as an interruption or a problem to solve.
Medford’s reflections on disability are eloquent and insightful, and I appreciated her vulnerability about her slow, sometimes cyclical journey of learning to care for her health and live with her body’s frailties without feeling like a failure. She also includes reflections on stories from the gospels, emphasizing the character of Jesus and how he not only healed sick people, but also honored them as individuals and restored them to their surrounding community. She writes about Jesus in fresh, striking ways, bringing these stories to life from a different perspective, and she also weaves in other theological reflections throughout the book. For example, I liked her statement that when someone discovers their unfair advantages, they shouldn’t hate themselves, but should find their identity in Jesus’s love and acceptance.
I found the book most interesting when it focused on Medford’s personal journey and spiritual themes. When she reflected on deeper societal fissures, I sometimes found that insightful and helpful, but at other times, this political bent felt like an attempt to use the right buzzwords, check the right boxes, and make sure that the book condemned the patriarchy enough times. I don’t want to make light of Medford’s internal struggles with wishing she could be more involved in activist work, and she has powerful things to say about the world’s broken systems and why it matters for people to make changes in their individual lives and communities, even when they can’t do more than that. However, this became unbelievably repetitive, to the point where I wondered if she was afraid of being criticized by political activists and felt like she had to prove how like-minded she is.
My other critique is that Medford ignores the experiences of men who deal with chronic illness. She talks about “disabled people” in general, but whenever she talks about gender-specific dynamics, she only talks about women. Women are more likely to suffer from autoimmune issues and mystery diseases, and sexism within the medical field often results in additional barriers, such as doctors not believing female patients or not knowing how to diagnose and treat them, due to disparities in scientific funding and studies that only include men. That is all real, valid, and important, but Medford still could have acknowledged men, even just in passing. For example, Medford could have mentioned the additional challenges that men face when they don’t meet social standards of career success and productivity, since people often equate being a man with being successful in a chosen career and being able to financially support a family.
I enjoyed My Body and Other Crumbling Empires as a fellow sufferer of chronic illness, and I found Lyndsey Medford’s reflections on issues in society helpful and much-needed, especially as she calls out ways that our culture’s obsession with productivity makes people feel like failures for being ill and not having the same capabilities as other people. She writes in an eloquent, passionate way about deeply important issues, and she articulates deep realities and complicated experiences that are difficult to express. I appreciate her talent for writing, her vulnerability about her personal experiences, and her insight into inter-related social issues. Even though there were aspects of this book that I found frustrating, it is helpful and insightful overall, and I truly appreciate the author’s unique perspective.