One night, while she was waiting, Barbara Timm had a dream. She dreamed that the hostages had been released and were walking down the stairway from their plane in Washington linked arm in arm like cutout paper dolls. Only her son Kevin was missing.

In the dream, as she told it to the National Public Radio reporter, Barbara Timm ran and called the American Embassy in Iran. Kevin picked up the phone. He couldn't come home yet, he explained to his mother, because he hadn't finished the puzzle.

The hostages are coming home, including Kevin. But Mrs. Timm is right: this puzzle isn't finished, may never be finished.

The ordeal was born in chaos and ended in confusion . . . and the pieces are scattered across the rugs of Iran and America.

It will take tens of academic tenures to try and fit them into any meaningful picture of what happened there. But I think we do know something about what happened here. We changed.

For a long time when we think about this ordeal, what we'll remember most is the hate. Television brought hate into our living rooms directly from Tehran, the way it brought war home directly from Vietnam.

We sat in our chairs and watched foreigners we'd never met chant hate at us night after night. In turn we felt the urge Santayana wrote about: "To knock by siding with a "despot" shah or by not defending a "friend"? That debate will be endless.

But the seizing of the Americans in our embassy made us the victims. We felt wronged and vengeful.

Slowly, inexorably, with the drama of American Held Hostage played out before us, we gave up on the notion that we could win through reason, win by being "right" in the eyes of the world. There was a subtle shift in our gave way to the part of us that thnks it is wiser to be feared.

Maybe it is a peculiarity of American foreign policy. But we have always wanted to be seen as good guys. At the end of World War II, our image in the world was both strong and good. It was an unusual historical moment; we occupied a rare and fragile terrain.

The territory eroded quickly during the Cold War and turned to dust in Vietnam. By the end of that war, most Americans felt we had been bad guys. In many ways, it was Carter who promised us that we could win respect again by being loved, by wearing the white hat of human rights in the world.

Call this idea naive or idealistic -- either way we lost it in Tehran. We lost it in 444 days. We lost it in their hate and our outrage. We lost it in their terrorism and our impotence.

"It's nice being liked," said Reagan all through a campaign waged against the Iranian backdrop. "It's more important to be respected."

We came to believe we had to make a choice. That we could have love or fear, but not both.

By the end of this ordeal, Carter was playing nice cop and Reagan tough cop. Carter was negotiating and Reagan crying "barbarians." The very timing of the release, at the deadline moment of inauguration, was dramatic testimny to "toughness." The Iranians, we are told, finally bargained with Carter because they feared Reagan.

There is no way to know whether a hard-line president could have prevented this ordeal. But we are struck by this idea as we try to make sense of the hostage story, try to write a scenario to protect us in the future.

The people who wanted to prevent "another Vietnam" by being good guys have been replaced by the people who want to prevent "another Iran" by being tough guys.

The words of Machiavelli come up again: "From this arises the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather that loved . . . If we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

I think this is the caption to the picture emerging from the scattered pieces of our psyche. We are fashioning a portrait of tough guys now, fearsome to others and perhaps rather scary to ourselves.