A few months ago I met author Alain de Botton in Brisbane and asked him about belonging. Being a jet-lagged philosopher he wanted time to ponder this question and suggested I email him.

I had been saving this quote, this nugget of belonging, and now that I’ve come back to it anew, I see power in de Botton’s statement and also a candid vulnerability. His words, infused with warmth, relay how belonging isn’t linked to place but to certain people.

”The feeling of belonging – well, the honest truth is, I don’t have it yet. I am 44 years old and it’s something I’m missing. I don’t feel I belong in London, in the UK, but nor have I known other congenial homes,’’ de Botton said.

So I ask myself, could it be this sense of not belonging which drives de Botton to understand people and our interactions with the constructs that we have made for ourselves like art, travel, or work? At the same time I wonder whether de Botton’s lack of belonging has become an asset in his philosophical function as observer and teacher. Has it given him a focused distance where others, with a strong sense of belonging, are more myopic?
Belonging is elusive. Like love, you can neither buy belonging nor write your way into it with several best sellers. Indeed material successes are too easily won to merit or capture the floating whispers of belonging.No. It is by doing that which is most difficult for us — by exposing our true selves to others and opening up to the frightening potential of emotional hurt — that leads us to connection and belonging. And it is doing this, not just once, but over and over again, for years.As de Botton points out, belonging dwells not in the complicated world of the material, but in the simplicity and acceptance of deep friendship.

”I conclude that I’ll never belong in any huge sense, I’ll just have a few friends, and maybe that’s OK. So I belong wherever I and my pals find [our]selves together,’’ de Botton said.

Even here, nothing is permanent, nothing can be taken for granted.

Belonging, once tasted, becomes a fleeting moment on the palate of life that lingers only in the sublime sensation of memory.

(Brisbane March 2014 and via email. Alain de Botton’s latest book is The News: A User’s Manual, Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books.)