Shaking to Breathe: Shakers and the Suffocation of Perfection

I’ve always been intrigued by the Shakers as a religious movement. On one hand, their way of life has a strange appeal. The way they provided for themselves from their own land, created their own medicines, and lived in seeming communal harmony sounds…idyllic. The idealized version of them is mesmerizing in a society of broken communities and hectic life.

However, underneath the superficial fascination has always lingered a certain kind of sadness for me—the same sadness that I get when I read about the mass suicides of Jonestown.

It’s the sadness of a system dying out.

The Shakers didn’t have the violent implosion of the People’s Temple. There are still three members living; however, like the white rhinoceros, the Shakers are only death away from extinction. It’s a movement that is slowly asphyxiating in a system that leaves no room for breathing.

While the majority of people focus on and stop at the picturesque way of life that is preserved in history books, I’ve always seen the death throes that followed. It seemed incongruous. If they had achieved “utopia” as so many claim, how could they die out?

When I found out there was a Shaker museum near where we were staying on vacation, I couldn’t resist visiting. You could say it was a morbid fascination born of a curiosity to see what a non-violent cult looks like when it expires.

It wasn’t like visiting other historic places. There was no sense of life having passed through and moved on, leaving just relics behind. I got the sense that life hadn’t moved on at all in their buildings. It had just . . . stopped. The energy in the rooms was one of quiet desperation. The perfection—the symmetry—practically screamed in pain to me.

I thought as a perfectionist that I would fall in love with it, but I just wanted to cry.

I didn’t see beauty in the perfection. I saw the erasure of individuality. They had obliterated the identifying marks of a person, a room, a chair. In a way, they had achieved the purpose of perfection…

I had never really thought about the difference between perfection and quality before. They had seemed to coincide. Good quality objects should be as near to perfect as possible, right?

I don’t think so anymore.

Visiting the former Shaker settlement was like a rebirth for me, but not in the way they would have liked. I left craving imperfection, chaos, individuality, and art like never before.

Afterwards as we wandered around some local pottery shops, I gravitated towards the “seconds,” marveling over how beautiful they were—still good quality, functional items but with something that made them far more valuable to me than the “firsts.”

I knew that the flawed pieces were completely unique.

It’s not a luxury that I’ve granted myself in the past. While I might have subconsciously appreciated the individuality of artisan works or simply not cared about the flaws that I couldn’t find, I would have never considered that my own mistakes in my creative process could be considered gifts rather than blemishes.

I wouldn’t have valued them as an expression of my unique humanity.

Up until now, I have been trying to teach the perfectionist side of me that it’s okay to make mistakes. The world won’t end if I drop a stitch on a knitting project. Nothing bad will happen if I accidentally spell a word wrong. No one will punish me for burning supper or forgetting to return a library book.

It’s a start, but I don’t want to stop there. I’m starting to see that it’s more than permissible to make mistakes; it’s beautiful to be imperfect. It’s creative. It’s human. It’s the way we instill messages and stories in our work and the way we grow. Without it, there’s no breath in our process; there is no life.

4 thoughts on “Shaking to Breathe: Shakers and the Suffocation of Perfection

  1. nanlt says:

    It’s the cracks in the wall that let the light shine through.

    I have a chant which was given to me to use when I feel weak. In this chant I make the statement that I am formed of hardened steel. When I was first hearing this in my head I asked the question, shouldn’t it be hardened iron, a pure metal? And I was given the message – it is the imperfections in iron which give it strength, make it steel. And it is the imperfections in you which make you stronger.

  2. I love the shaker hymn, “tis a gift to be simple” but your post is an apt and heart-felt critique of how the most wondrous human experiences and understandings can nevertheless become entombed in the prisons of our systematizing minds, social norms and religious rules. We are each unique, and in our uniqueness will never be perfect! I leave you the words of their hymn, both as an invitation to keep moving on your spiritual path, and, as a punctuation mark on your rumination on the problem with perfection:

    Tis a gift to be simple,
    Tis a gift to be free
    Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be
    and when we find ourselves in the place just right
    t’will be in the valley of love and delight.
    When true simplicity is gained
    to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
    but turn, turn will be our delight
    till by turning, turning we come out right.

  3. When we cling to anything too fiercely we risk destroying it, destroying the community built around it if we are too wrapped up in what it is supposed to be. By chasing perfection we lose sight of of the simple things in life, the important things that make us the imperfect, strong, wonderful very human beings that we are.

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