Young people find out more about who they are by discovering who and what they like and dislike. Under the best of circumstances they find out what they are good at, they establish significant relationships, they learn to think and act independently, and they discover what matters most to them. Through the relationships they develop with family members, peers, and intimate others, they find avenues of personal expression in school settings, personal interest groups, and work arenas. The totality of social relationships and arenas in which their explorations occur eventually leads to a more refined understanding of who they are and what they seek. For many young people, questions about spirituality and religiosity (and the contexts in which those questions arise) influence healthy identity development.
What happens when young people find a meaningful path for spiritual expression? Alternately, what happens when there is a dark, empty space that tells them life has no meaning, that there is only taking, getting, and doing whatever they need to do to get by? In the first example, a person with a feeling that life and living matter will tend to make choices that are healthier. In the second, a person will tend to make choices that may be damaging to them physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
The most powerful values are those that are forged through personal experiences. Spirituality may be linked to a specific religious path, or a particular spiritual teacher, or sometimes it is experienced as a sense that "there is something bigger than me, either within me or out there, and I want to get to know it." Divisions between various spiritual and religious traditions become less significant than the selection of a path that fits experientially for each young person. The most enduring spiritual values may have their roots in early family experience. The key to a spiritual path that helps young people feel connected and assists them in making wise and healthy choices lies in the universal truth of those values (love, compassion, and service to others) and the inspiration those values offer in a chosen life direction.
When spiritual values are self-chosen, personally experienced, and closely examined, they become a source of personal power and a way to relate to others. These values can help young people avoid risk-taking behaviors such as drug abuse, destructive dieting, and impulsive driving habits. The prevalence of homicide, accidents, and suicide in the age group from 16 to 25 suggests that deeply held spiritual values may help young people with their choices. They may begin to experience their bodies as more than physical objects to be used, but rather as a source of health, pleasure, and fulfillment toward their chosen goals. They may also learn that their feelings, thoughts, and spiritual values can guide them toward either healthy choices or destructive outcomes. Finally, as young people persist in developing spiritual values, they discover that body, mind, and spirit are not separate from each other. Rather, they are mutually interactive and represent an integrated whole. An action in one realm impacts the whole.
Most young people desire a fulfilling life. The means for achieving that precious goal are ongoing and based on social experimentation that eventually leads to certain conclusions. Physically and mentally healthy personal outcomes, guided by self-reflection, provide the feedback that helps the young seek a direction of integrity, personal integration, and spiritual fulfillment.