It came to me one day while applying antibiotic ointment to my young daughter’s scrape. With similar wounds to my daughter’s in my own childhood, out came a rectangular amber glass bottle of Merthiolate or Mercurochrome. The pinkest liquid you’ve ever seen – over the top pink, pink on heroin. There are lots of different kinds of pain, but two childbirths later I don’t think I’ve ever felt more burn than was delivered by that little bottle.

At my house, the Merthiolate ritual was the same every time. Mom or Dad would lift us along with our newly cleaned [insert appropriate body part here] to sit on top of the kitchen counter. Some quorum of family members would stand around us poised to assist, cheeks poofed out with a lung full of air, pointed at the wound. On cue, after the medicine was applied, all the helpers would immediately start blowing (lots of new germs, I can see all these years later) on the carefully cleaned wound to make that infernal sting stop.

Fast forward way too many years to count and my mind wandered during this one application of pain-free gooey room temperature antibiotic glop, getting some kind of peanut gallery complaint from my daughter about “you touched me too hard” or “the water hurts.” I had a flashback to those agonizing family Merthiolate operations. It made me start to wonder, if we divided the world into pre-antibiotic ointment generation and post antibiotic ointment generation, what would we find? And, to be honest, I felt a touch of nostalgia for my own little childhood hero arc, having survived the pain with the help of people I loved.

It becomes pretty obvious why this matters so much just by contrasting the level of adversity our kids endure in a given day vs. (say…) those poor lost souls in the middle east – the ones who more often than we like end up filling the ranks of Al Qaeda with human fodder. I’ll admit that our teens are willing to amp up their effort to make it to a good sale at Urban Outfitters, but is that really going to be enough?

To raise children whose self-esteem comes from knowing they can manage in tough circumstances, I say we bring back the Merthiolate. That’s right, who cares if it doesn’t actually kill the germs as well, we’ve got to save western civilization.

Many of the problems we’re having have a lot to do with how easy we have it, from how much time we spend on our sofa to how impossible we find it to compromise over much of anything (like the die-on-this-hill mentality in Washington). It’s an imperative of human nature that easy makes us paunchy and brings out the worst in us rather than the best.

I told my brother about my Merthiolate theory. He happens to have spent much of his life leading some of these very young people into battle and assures me they are doing quite well on all measures of strength and intestinal fortitude thank-you-very-much. But forgive me if I’m still just thinking that it is a time, culturally, when we need to fight the antibiotic-ointmentization of America. That goes double for the civic conversations we’re willing to have. Let others choose comfortable, I say bring on the pain.

It builds character and it builds countries.


Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of The Village Square. She can be reached at