I learned about placeholders in elementary school. We were taken to the library and given little wooden boards to use. When we removed a book from the shelf we would insert the placeholder so we could return each book to its proper place. The concept was simple enough, and when we left the library everything was in order.

It was my introduction to the concept of placeholders that instilled their meaning for me – a thing that substitutes another until the fitting object could be inserted into its rightful place.

The important thing however, is not to confuse the placeholder for the real thing. While the real thing is precious and requires a placeholder, the placeholder itself is nothing. Instead of a wood board you can use a piece of paper or plastic, or really anything else. It is interchangeable and consequently unimportant.

Placeholders are transitional items. Sometimes placeholders are used for an extended period of time, inserted and reinserted into different places as the proper things that actually have a use are searched for. The same little wooden board could be used half a dozen times before the right book is found and read. Each book is treasured and consumed, but the placeholder is simply used for its intended purpose, and then discarded into a pile with all the others.

And while the concept is easy enough that even an elementary school child could understand, the placeholder does not hold the same awareness. When in use it believes itself to be important. But the transaction by nature invalidates the placeholder, reducing it to less than even a thing. The user understands the placeholder’s place, knowing it will never become a book. The book does not concern itself with the placeholder. Only the placeholder exists in blissful ignorance, happy each time it is handled, and even perhaps wishing that it would checked out and taken home like the surrounding books. Only after it is thrown in the bucket of fellow abandoned placeholders does it gain sad self awareness, finally able to reflect on its condition with full knowledge of its own irrelevance. Except no one seems to care. That is simply what a placeholder is for. Has anyone ever wondered how the placeholder feels?

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