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.