A psychiatrist was asked to give pieces of advice to a condemned criminal, who was to face execution in a few days. It was right after the psychiatrist gave a lecture to prisoners upon the request of the prison’s warden. He accepted the demand.
He started by revealing his own experience of living in the Auschwitz death camp. Even in the most desperate situation where he had to face the threat of death consistently, the psychiatrist had never given up on his thought that a life is full of meaning. In the end, a life would be either meaningful or meaningless. If it is meaningful, it would be so no matter how short-lived the life is, and if it’s not, the addition of a few more years would not make any difference in the life. “Trust me. By thinking hard about this matter, you can find meaning even at the last minute of a life, in which you hadn’t seen any meaning.” Then he told the prisoner the story of Leo Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”
The novel is about an old man in his 60s who, all of a sudden, is given only a few days to live due to an illness. The highly regarded judge used to live only to get promoted at work and achieve career success, but facing a death, he realizes that he has wasted his life and his life had no meaning. The realization ultimately leads him to grow beyond himself and fill the final days of his life with meaning. By telling this story, the psychiatrist wanted to encourage the prisoner to look back at his life, though belatedly, and find enlightenment.
An interview the prisoner had with a reporter before he was executed in a barbaric way clearly shows that he accepted the psychiatrist’s advice and lived the final days of his life in a meaningful way. The person who helped the prisoner find meaning at the last minute was Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy, a notion helpful for people who fall into despair and sometimes even feel suicidal. What he did to the prisoner was a kind of logotherapy.