On Mathoms

This past week I finished J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Hobbit and launched myself full-steam-ahead into The Lord of the Rings. In rereading Tolkien’s works, I was reminded of why hobbits are some of my favorite fictional beings. For one, they all know how to have a good time and throw great parties (as Bilbo did when he turned eleventy-one). For another, they give presents on their birthdays, rather than receive them. And, of course, while their diets may not be very conducive to low cholesterol and slim waistlines, I don’t know too many people who scoff at the idea of a second breakfast every day, or dinner followed by supper a couple hours later.

In reading the Prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, something Tolkien wrote about hobbits struck me. They have a name for something they don’t need but don’t want to get rid of: a mathom.

…for anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.

All my life I’ve been searching for that word, mathom. Formerly, I called mathoms stuff or junk, whether they were my own or someone else’s. The words stuff and junk make the possessions in question sound like they are completely useless. Now I realize that mathoms are neither stuff nor junk; instead, they are things that serve a useful purpose and were once needed, but are needed no more.

In the context of Tolkien’s epic, long before the days of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins the hobbits had needed armor and sword for repelling Orc invasions. As time wore on, the Orcs stopped invading, and the hobbits lived comfortable lives free of danger. They no longer needed their arms, so they kept them as trophies or gave them to a museum called the Mathom-house. It was not that the weapons and shields were useless, but that they were no longer needed by everyday hobbits in everyday life.

When you think about it, many of the things we own are mathoms. We buy things and use them for a while because we really do need them, and then we hold on to them long after they have served their purposes. They’re not useless, but they have become useless to us. Regardless, we still hold on to them for any number of reasons, from sentimentality to the reasoning that we’ll need them again someday.

While I don’t have any formal resolutions for the new year, I aim to do two things this year: One, I will not accumulate any more mathoms, and two, I will start getting rid of the mathoms I already have.

It doesn’t take long for me to start identifying some of my mathoms: shirts and jackets hanging in my closet that I haven’t worn in over a year, a broken guitar amplifier serving primarily as a footstool, books on my shelf I’ll never read again. I identified these in about two minutes.

It’s tough to get rid of some of these things. I believe one of man’s wonts is to not let things go, whether material or otherwise. We humans may not be hoarders, but we’re not easily unattached from things that we own.

Nevertheless, there’s a good feeling when one lets go. Last week alone, I gave the unused shirts and jackets to Mission Arlington (a local charity), the guitar amp to a friend, and sold the books to Half-Price Books. It feels good knowing that some young man in need will have black dress clothes to wear, that my friend will have an electrical project and potentially a great amp, and that someone else might read the books I’ve already enjoyed. No use keeping those things around just to collect dust.

I know firsthand that giving a mathom a new home makes me happier than I would be if I held on to it. I believe that when you have less, you have more. Less matter, more of what matters.

From a biblical perspective, we should all remember the words of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return” (Job 1:21a, ESV). Solomon, the wisest man the world has ever known, reiterates this as he nears the end of his life: “As [a man] came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand” (Ecclesiastes 5:15, ESV).

In the end, we will leave behind the mathoms we’ve held on to for all our lives. Someone else will inherit them, for better or worse. We Westerners tend to accumulate but tend not to let go while we’re living. Though we don’t like to think about it, we should face reality and remember that we’ll have to let our mathoms and everything else go at some point.

I intend to rid myself of as many mathoms as possible this year. It’s not going to be easy in some cases, but I know I’ll be better off for it and be helping other people by giving away what I no longer need. It’s my hope that this inspires you to start identifying mathoms in your own life and find ways to make them mathoms no more.