Lighten Up, Francis

Jan 6, 2022 | Biography, Humour, Shared thoughts

In 1981, Columbia pictures released Stripes, one of Hollywood’s greatest contributions to my children’s cultural inheritance. In it, Private Francis Soyer (hair much too long for a boot camp recruit), was the platoon’s most uptight person. If you put a lump of coal up his backside, in three minutes it would be a diamond.

With a psychotic glare and menacing tone, he introduces himself by informing his colleagues that he’ll kill anyone who touches him, touches his stuff, or calls him Francis–he prefers the nickname Psycho. The drill sergeant, with a dismissive smirk, utters the line I’ve used on myself and others ever since:

Lighten up, Francis.

In our weaker, more brittle moments, we can all be Francis. The world gets on our nerves (welcome back to work, everyone!), and anything outside our skin is a threat. But of course it’s not.

In one of my favorite books, The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander tell the story of a visitor witnessing a CEO calm one after another of his senior managers as they rotate through his office with their own emergencies for the day. The CEO reminds each of them to “Remember Rule #6,” and each thanks him before leaving, lighter and more grounded. The visitor asks what Rule #6 is, and the CEO replies, “Don’t take yourself so bleeping seriously.” Asked what the first five rules are, he responds, “There are no other rules.”

Well, life may or may not be quite that simple. But the CEO and the drill sergeant both have a point. Take that power into your own hands. We each have a contracted, defensive, uptight piece of us that we might name Francis. Remind him of the one rule he needs. A hip-pocket sense of humor can be a super-power.

As an autobiographical footnote, I’ll let you know that Stripes changed my life. Within three years after seeing it, overwhelmingly inspired to join the Army, I entered the West Point class of 1988. Bill Murray and John Candy were not present.

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