A Study in Heathen Ethics

This is a response to a thread I started on a private forum devoted to Heathenry.  I wanted to share it here because I will probably refer to it at a later date.

You are in a tall building on the 50th floor. A fire starts on the bottom floors and you are cut off. The only way out is a massive airlift on the rooftop.

An evacuation is ordered. For whatever reason, you know you will not be able to make it to the rooftops before the flames consume the building. Any attempts to rescue yourself are doomed.

Do you die in agony as the flames eat away at your skin? Do you find a place where toxic gas an inhalation will suffocate you more humanely? Do you die exhausted on floor 81, unable to climb another step, as the flames eat your flesh?

What do you do? And more importantly why? Most importantly, what makes your choice the Heathen one?

As presented, you could choose to do basically three things.  The first is to push on, trying your best to survive.  Another was to do nothing, to find your fate where you were and accept it.  The third was to help those along the way.

Beowulf:

Wyrd oft nereð
unfægne eorl,  |  þonne his ellen deah.
Wyrd spares the undoomed man, if his courage holds.

Courage in the face of risk is essential to survival, but when the weave is wove by the Wyrdae, courage and cowardace ends in a grave.  When discussing Wyrd, I have often talked about the idea that people are born with wide open potential.  Every moment, that potential expands and contracts with our choices and decisions, but always getting smaller and smaller.  By 30, if you haven’t made the majors, you probably won’t. Eventually, it will be too late to tell your parents you love them.  Each decision has an effect on the potential, but no decision is as powerful as time.  Eventually, will we, nil we, we will face the moment of our deaths; kings, clerics, and commoners all. The question is never if, but how.

The thought experiment is designed to put you in a position to think about what you’d do when fate is certain.  How would you choose?

Many of you chose to keep trying to escape.  Dying somewhere above floor 50.  The explanations you gave had a theme: your life is not your own.  Your family and your tribe need you, so you fight on, trying your best to escape.  This is a heathen answer, and I can’t gainsay the logic behind it.  You are better off to your family alive, then dead.  But you’re going to be dead regardless.  Your family will only have the scattered memories, often unreliable, of what was seen or heard that day.  They will not know if you died well, or in agony, crying and wishing you were with them.  They will hope you had a decent death, with not too much pain.  But in the dark moments of their grief, they will wonder.  They will think.

Some of you would try and assuage the grief of your family, lying to them that you were going to escape, so as to give them hope.  This is understandable.  Even in some cases, commendable.  I can’t say that I would want my family to know how scared / doomed it was.  But ultimately, this was inaction, the closest thing we have to sin in Heathenry.

The third option was to rescue others.  This is the best option.  I will try to explain.

Everyone faces death.  Not everyone does something with that experience.  For some, it is acceptance, others, defiance, but heroes do both. We accept our doom, our fate.  We were lead here, yes, but we were the one doing the leading.  In the end, we can no more change the circumstances of our death than we can our birth.  If we can, then those weren’t the circumstances.  This appears circular logic, but I don’t think it is.  It is only circular if we were not the agent as well as the observer.  Agency, the ability to affect change in ourselves, in each other, in the environment around us, is an essential aspect of wyrd weaving.  Therefore to say that we cannot change the circumstances of our death means that in the moment of our death, we lose that agency. We cannot change those circumstances, whatever they happen to be, for if we could, we would, and they wouldn’t be the circumstances of our death.

But it is the moment of our death that leads to loss of agency, that moment is not necessarily the moment when we find out.  As creatures with wyrd we are capable of perceiving it.  As before, this seems woo, but it isn’t.  We are capable of predictions, of perceiving the weave of wyrd.  All humans can.  Some are just better at it from others.  It is what allows us to toss a ball into a basket, to anticipate another’s dance step, or, for the really clever of us, to count the cards and make good betting choices.  Or for the less clever but more pragmatic, to stay out of the casino and not play the lottery. In any case, the human’s ability to predict the future is not perfect, but still possible.

In the time between accepting that now is your time to die, and actually dying, you still have agency.  You can still choose to do things.  Just not Not Dying. What you do during this time matters just as much, if not more, than what you have done before. And yes, you can choose to try to escape.  This is a perfectly Heathen answer.  Even accepting your fate and meeting it with courage feels somewhat heathen.  But to my mind, the best thing you can do is help others escape.  And as you’re helping others escape, tell people who you are.  Tell them about your loved ones.  Ask them to remember you, and tell your loved once you cared, and wished it were otherwise.

This will earn you fame.  And that could be the end point.  Even chasing fame is something worthy of a life. Cattleddie, Kinsmen die — blah blah, blah blah blah!  But it does more than just simple fame — or rather, fame is more than simple notoriety.

It gives your family closure.  It sets an example for your children.  It brings them emotional comfort, and with a little luck, that fame transmits to them, providing them resources both financial, reputation also, and otherwise, to use with you not around.

With each life that you save, you are putting a seed in the ground.  And all those lives, touched by you will be influenced by you.  Your choices, the things you believed, the person that you were, becomes something more, something greater.  Each person helped is a gift of yourself, and gifts look for gifts in return. With each gift you give, a gift ultimately returns to your family. And in death, so long as you are remembered, you remain a resource to your kin.

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