Featured Reviews

Emily Freeman – How to Walk into a Room [Review]

Emily FreemanA Pastoral Guide in Times of Transition

A Feature Review of

How to Walk into a Room: The Art of Knowing When to Stay and When to Walk Away
Emily P. Freeman

Hardcover: HarperOne, 2024
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Reviewed by Marshall Benbow

We make hundreds of decisions every day. Some are small decisions, like what to eat for breakfast. Others are a little more important, such as how to prioritize items on our to-do list for work. Still others loom large and feel incredibly weighty, like whether it’s time for a new job, a new home, a new church. And while we are not usually paralyzed when choosing to eat yogurt or cereal, weighty decisions can exert incredible power over us, consuming our thoughts and emotions while at the same time leading us in wearying circles. People will sometimes turn to a spiritual director or mentor to help them find the right exit off the decisions roundabout, but finding time, money, and the right person can feel just as daunting as the decision that you are wrestling with. Perhaps, though, finding help can be as simple as picking up a copy of Emily P. Freeman’s newest book.

How to Walk into a Room is a courageous, kind, and pastoral book which helps readers navigate the inevitable beginnings and endings in our lives, and it is very much like having a spiritual director by your side, if one reads slowly and carefully.

Drawing deeply from her training and experience as a spiritual director, Freeman peppers this book with thoughtful and spacious questions that open the door for reflection, while very generously sharing from her own life. She invites the reader to journey with her through an incredibly difficult period in her own life as she discerned whether to stay at her church or to leave. Her vulnerability and wisdom are tools that help the reader to learn to do the same work of discernment.

Freeman uses the analogy of different rooms in our lives and invites the reader to consider whether or not it is time to move to a new room, or to discern if you are simply in the hallway befuddled by an array of doors. Her writing cadence and style is extremely comforting and invitational, which is most welcome when facing beginnings and endings that are often painful.

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She writes, “What’s even more important than the decisions you make is the person you’re becoming while you make them. The less confident you feel about your decisions, the more you tense up, clench your jaw, lose sleep, and scold yourself for being too much of something bad and not enough of something good. When this happens, it’s more likely you’ll be unkind to yourself. What if you practiced doing the opposite? If you find yourself feeling stuck, instead of holding your breath, try letting it out. Instead of scolding yourself, try speaking words of comfort out loud. Even if you don’t fully believe them right now, speak them in faith as a hopeful practice, a way of professing something true even if it doesn’t feel true yet.”

This book will speak differently in different seasons, and the most impactful chapter for me in this first reading was Chapter 7, “Peace or Avoidance.” It articulated my struggle with discerning whether or not the peace I have felt when keeping silent is because I was supposed to keep silent or because I was relieved to avoid conflict. But it was helpful to be shown that just because a decision leads to confrontation, that does not mean that the decision is wrong.

Freeman writes, “If you consider the rooms you’re in and you imagine a confrontation that might come as a result of your decision or the resistance you’ll likely get if they know you’ve changed your mind, it’s natural that you would begin to have a sense of fear and discomfort. But that fear and discomfort are often interpreted as a closed door or even a wall. They could be that, but they’re not necessarily that. Fear and discomfort aren’t usually answers by themselves but are often arrows: important to pay attention to, but it’s also best to ask yourself what they’re pointing to. At first, it helps to consider them as yellow flags meant to slow you down rather than assume they are red flags every time. The question to discern is if the fear and discomfort are pointing to a wall (Don’t go this way), a window (Here’s something that’s possible), a mirror (This is a time for self-reflection), or a door (Yeah, it’s time to go).”

While Emily does not insist that the reader adopt a Christian worldview in order to move forward in decision making, the grace and kindness of Jesus Christ are threads woven throughout the whole book, signposts pointing to the love of God that Emily has experienced through her relationship with Jesus. It is an embodied invitation to let her good friend Jesus be your help and guide as well.

As a pastor, I feel better equipped to listen well and to be more generous and kind with people who arrive at different decisions and destinations from my own. No one has fully arrived, we are all works in progress, and we are all wrestling with big and beautiful decisions beneath the surface. Remembering that makes me a better along-sider, accompanying people on their way with God, and it also helped me be more gracious with myself in my discernment process.

“Walking into your next room might mean finding the courage to do just one regular next right thing: a widow going to the grocery store alone for the first time after losing her partner; a teacher entering the classroom again after moving to a new city; a retiree waking up on Monday morning three days after his retirement party; a new parent returning to work after their parental leave is over. These milestone entries may look nondescript on the outside, which can make them easy to overlook. There won’t be a medal for them—no reward, cheering crowd, or prize money. There is no welcome party or commencement ceremony for these new beginnings. They will be mostly quiet, unassuming, and private. But just because atmospheric reentry is planned and expected doesn’t mean it’s uneventful or smooth. The “series of car crashes” doesn’t mean something is wrong. It might even mean you’re on the way home.”

Marshall Benbow

Marshall Benbow is the Teaching Pastor at Grace Community Church in Greensboro, NC. He loves spending time with his wife and three children, and he also loves the UNC Tar Heels, St. Louis Cardinals baseball, bluegrass music, and running. You can listen to him weekly on Hold for Podcast.

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