ShipOfFools_web_07292016“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;

nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In graduate school, I met and dated quite a few women, particularly during my time at Cornell University. Ironically, Cornell had just gone “co-ed” during my time there so the girls I met were often quite choosy and many guys I knew had very little success dating. But since my definition of success was developing a more permanent relationship, my frustration with dating grew to be a major theme because the women I dated did not seem to value relationship, except within limited bounds. Offering a 100 percent commitment and finding a 20 percent commitment being offered in return left me feeling used and abused.

Commitment, of course, meant that I needed to make some adjustments—expecting to meet “miss right” meant that I had to become “mister right”. In the 1970s as now, “mister right” had to have the financial capacity to support a family and not everyone was willing to date someone with great expectations. With rapid inflation, high energy prices, and a deteriorating job market, my economics training suggested that the package for “miss right” also needed now to include a serious career, which suggested that dating attractive younger women was risky because a serious career required more commitment than many people—male or female—were willing to invest.

Those women willing to invest the time and energy in a career expressed less interest in men and had much higher expectations, which posed a real problem in dating. The problem was simple—career expectations for men were going down with a weak economy and competition from women while the expectations of attractive women with career potential of eligible men were going up. If women’s expectations were unrealistically high because of the historically unique nature of this problem, then the dating market need not yield a solution—a disconnect would emerge.[1]

This disconnect was obvious to me from the quirky responses I received from American women that I dated. One woman I dated broke up with me because she wanted to spend more time with the rowing team; another women who I dated was still in the process of divorce; still another wanted to meet me and bring along half-a-dozen friends from her department; another was engaged but wanted just to hang out with me until she got married. By the time I left Cornell, I resolved not to date American women because of all the relational confusion and the pain that it caused. It was simply much easier to date foreign students who were more committed to and conventional in their relational expectations.

During the late 1970s, I had a serious relationship (more than a year) with a foreign student—let me call her Betsy (not her name) and let me be vague about time and place and nationality so that I can speak more freely. Betsy and I worked hard to find a financial path to marriage while continuing our education. While that path never materialized, another problem emerged to threw our relationship in disarray.

This disarray began when Betsy and I traveled to her hometown to visit her mother, where Betsy put me up for the night with a friend. In the morning when Betsy came to pick me up, she looked like someone who had been beaten up—unkept and shaken—and she had been. At this point, she shared with me that she was an only child and her mother had had her at a young age out of wedlock; her untimely birth caused a scandal so her parents never married; and in the years that followed her mother became an alcoholic and blamed Betsy for all her troubles. When her mother learned that Betsy was dating an American, she went nuts and beat her up—as a consequence, my introduction to mom never took place.

Unprepared to deal with physical abuse and alcoholism, I quietly freaked out. I had never the financial nor the emotional resources to offer Betsy the shelter she needed. I was no use at all—useless, helpless, and unable to process what was happening. I offered her the support that I could, but I was clearly out of my league, having hit my emotional threshold. Sheltered in family and church, I had never learned to deal with abuse, addiction, or a chronic illness—the bandwidth on my empathy was too limited and I withdrew emotionally. Over the next few months, our relationship melted away, like an ice cream cone left too long in the sun, and we eventually broke up.

In my shame, I started reading about alcoholism, especially Howard Clinebell’s Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic (1978). I learned to recognize the signs of alcoholism, some of the contributing factors, and the spiritual nature of the problem. More than simply learning the details of the problem and of various groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, that have attempted to deal with it, I gained an appreciation for the need to study brokenness before attempting to deal with it—a lesson which has served me well over the years. Clinebell’s book was the first counseling book that I ever read; interestingly, it is still in use and is considered a classic in counseling addicts.

The spiritual side of alcoholism is well known. For me, the story of Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane is most instructive—when we are faced with a difficult pain or decision, do we turn to God in our hour of need or do we turn into our pain? If we turn to God, our faith is strengthened and he promises to walk with us through our afflictions; if we turn into our pain, then we are easily deceived into thinking that our drugs of choice—food, liquor, sex, work, or narcotics—are part of the solution, not part of the problem. This confusion over problems and solutions means that the alcoholic cannot be helped until this twisted thinking is exposed for what it is—Satan’s bondage.

While I was never myself an alcoholic, alcoholism runs in parts of my mother’s family, which suggests that I may be genetically predisposed. Since this experience I have felt fortunate to have learned enough about the problem of alcoholism in time to learn to avoid it—not everyone I know has been so fortunate. During this period of my life, I began avoiding hard liquor and, significantly, I made a serious effort to enter the mission field, applying for a position in Latin America with the Reformed Church of America.


Clinebell, Howard J. Jr. 1978. Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic: Through Religion and Psychology. Nashville: Abingdon.

[1] Evidence of this disconnect between the expectations of men and women was everywhere to be seen, but it was most obvious in the high divorce rates during this period. Many of my male colleagues in graduate school had married their high school sweet-hearts who supported them both financially and emotionally during graduate school only to divorce on graduation—evidence that the guys were taking advantage of their new earning power to divorce.

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Senior Year Transition

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Behold, I have set before you an open door,
which no one is able to shut.” (Rev 3:8)

Senior Year Transition

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My senior year in college at Iowa State University (1975/76), I thought that I was bullet proof and signed up for 18 hours, including graduate level micro and macro economics classes. Other classes, like economic history, computer science, and statistics, provided important background for later studies and work in my career. Outside of class, I had a steady girl-friend—one of the few—in college, and I worked in the cafeteria in Wilson Hall, where I sometimes felt out of place.

For example, my floor in Wilson Hall had a successful basketball team that frequently went out to practice and played a game once a week. Although later during my time in Germany I was the star of the graduate student basketball team, here playing for Wilson Hall I mostly sat on the bench during games—most of my college buddies had played varsity-level basketball in high school, being from small high schools where everyone was given the opportunity to play. By contrast, because my own high school basketball team  took state champs throughout my high school years, only the most dedicated players made the team. Consequently, I felt out of place sitting on the bench while my team beat other teams.

But I also felt out of place trying to date small town girls. Most students at Iowa State came from Iowa and, because they hoped to remain in the Iowa after graduation, they remained closely tied to high school friends on campus. As an out-of-state student, it was difficult to break into these high school cliques. Unlike the movie stereotypes of rural kids dying to get out of their small towns, these were kids who were intensely loyal to their hometowns and chose careers to make that outcome possible. My cousin in Cedar Rapids, for example, never left Cedar Rapids—even to attend college; my roommate studied computer science, in part, so he could remain in Ames after graduation. Consequently, I felt out of place socially at Iowa State and ended up dating a bright young Iranian girl who I met in one of my economics classes.

My girl friend and I dated for several months, but later broke up because she criticized my car. In my sophomore year, I worked in construction for several months in the summer before transferring to Iowa State and used the money that I earned to buy a used 1967 Volkswagen beetle. I was intensely proud of my beetle, in part, because I had paid for it myself. Being Iranian, she assumed that my family could and should buy me a new and better car while I knew that the gift of a new car was unlikely. Thus, her criticism amounted to a cultural misunderstanding, but at the time this criticism simply cut too deep and we broke up. We remain friends, however, and she went on later to a doctorate and to teach agricultural economics at an important university.

Supporting my interest in international economic development, I took a series of classes in economic history. Although economists often envisioned economic development in terms of dollars saved and invested, the actual experience of economic development was often more of an historical process where key policies either supported productive investment or diverted resources away from useful investment into consumption activities. Understanding the difference was an important theme in economic history, which made it fascinating and helpful in explaining why some rather poor countries prospered while other comparatively rich counties squandered even better opportunities.

My history professor at Iowa State was a rather brilliant, but frustrated[1], professor from Yale University who did not like my term papers and was not particularly interested in explaining why. Actually, he threatened to flunk me if I signed up for the next class in the economic history sequence. After working unsuccessfully to please him with several papers, I went into his office and sat on his desk until he explained the problem. The problem was that I conceived of history as a chronology (or narrative) of events over time, while he saw history as the product of deductive reasoning. According to the deductive method, a paper should state a hypothesis and set out to provide it with historical observations. When I then adopted a deductive method in my next paper, he liked my papers and, in the process, I learned to pay attention to methods of argumentation when I would venture outside of economics to study other fields.

My lesson about focusing on argumentation methods came up again in studying macro-economics. The economics department at Iowa State was well-known for using quantitative methods, but my macro-economics professor preferred an history of thought method of argumentation.[2] The tension between these two methods set him at odds with the department so when he began drumming students out of this class (a common approach among professors trying to minimize their required teaching load) he quickly found himself isolated also from students—a class of over 20 students soon became a class of only 4 students. I soon had the distinction of being the only undergraduate student in the class after he  expressed open disdain for undergraduates generally and reiterated such comments even in private meetings.[3]

Stressful as some of my classes turned out to be, senior year was also physically exhausting and I frequently got only about 4 hours of sleep at night, preferring to catch sleep during dead time during the day. Not being a coffee drinker until much later, I took caffeine pills in a vain attempt to stay awake in the evening. Normally, I would study until eleven p.m. then go jogging to wake up so I could a couple more hours; then, at six a.m. I worked the breakfast shift in the cafeteria.

In the middle of my senior year, I applied to three graduate schools—University of Massachusetts, Iowa State University, and Cornell University, each of which had strong agricultural economic programs, according to my dad. I was offered admission and support at University of Massachusetts, but decided against it. Iowa State admitted me almost immediately, but was slow to offer me financial support. When financial support finally came through, I was assigned to work with a famous, but rather controlling professor. I went to see him several times to try to get to know him, but soon felt uncomfortable with this relationship. When Cornell University later offered me both admission and financial support, I changed my mind and decided to attend Cornell.

By May I had reached a breaking point because of stress and long hours and got sick. When I went to the clinic to get myself checked out, I was not ready to hear the news—I had mononucleosis. I freaked out—my history professor’s assistant just happened to be in the clinic at that moment and ran back to tell him the news—for a full-time student, it might as well have been the plague. Back in the dormitory, my roommate and my friends avoided me leaving me to eat and study by myself. When I told my parents, my dad told me that he had a business trip to Iowa later that month and promised to stop by and to bring me home in about a week. This meant that I had about a week to finish up my remaining classwork.

My remaining classwork turn out to less than expected because Iowa State had a rule that any graduating senior with a B average or better did not need to take final examinations. It was my policy in college to write all my term papers early in the quarter so that I could focus on studying for mid-term and final examinations later in the quarter. Being exempted from final examinations meant that I was essentially finished with my work—all but some FORTRAN programming and a few class projects. Time went by quickly and my father picked me up; we flew home to Maryland; and I spent the next 6 weeks in bed, missing out on graduation ceremonies.


Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

[1] He was from the east coast and felt that it was a hardship to work in Iowa.
[2] In broad terms, Johnson (1986, viii) classified the different schools of thought in economics as positivism, normativism, pragmaticism, and existentialism.
[3] He later failed to achieve tenure and ended up working for the Federal Reserve.

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The Divine Gift of Sledding


For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways. (Ps 91:11)

The Divine Gift of Sledding

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

After living in the dormitory at Iowa University and taking all my meals in the cafeteria, when I was admitted to Cornell University I decided to live off campus. The idea of living off campus seemed to offer more freedom and would presumably allow me to live with great parsimony. With freedom and parsimony on my mind, during a visit to campus arranged by the department of agricultural economics in August 1976 I rented a basement in a large, cooperatively-organized house with 12 other students on Elmwood Avenue.

The basement was the largest room in the house and, because it was totally unfinished, I was able to rent it for $50 a month on the stipulation that I fix it up. Having worked as a carpenter’s helper and other construction jobs during the summers in college, fixing up a basement to make it look like an apartment was no problem. During the week before classes started, I hung a door on the basement, walled in the heating unit, and wired several electrical outlets. I furthermore converted a small workroom into a study and organized the abandoned furniture into separate living room and bedroom spaces. As living space, my basement apartment was plenty big, but the lighting was poor, the floor was crumbling concrete, and the basement would flood in a heavy rain making it an uninviting place to bring friends; ultimately, it was a depressing place to live.

My living arrangements contributed to my goal of studying economic development by permitting me to save money to travel in Puerto Rico for my thesis project, but living off campus also contributed to my social isolation leaving me more vulnerable to depression, a problem widespread at Cornell that fall. In the fall of 1976 Cornell had record numbers of suicides and student demonstrations on campus before Thanksgiving demanded the college be closed until something could be done about it. Half a dozen students and faculty members, who I heard of through the grapevine, had attempted or succeeded in killing themselves, including one of my housemates—a bright, young premed student—who overdosed herself and was committed to a psyche unit in Syracuse. I drove up to Syracuse to pay a visit, but our conversation turned out to be rather awkward because I had no idea of how to cope with suicide and I was unprepared to learn that she had begun an affair with one of her doctors there—a newlywed. Awkward . . . depressing . . . I so wanted to help.

My own depression started during Christmas break for the first time when I stayed on campus away from my family during the semester break, which was a big mistake. Adding to my sense of isolation from family, most campus activities were suspended during the break and most of my friends disappeared to visit family or, if they had the means, took skiing holidays.[1] So Christmas turned out to be not much of a holiday and I found myself alone, in a cold, dark place with no obvious means of really celebrating the holiday.

My escape at that point was to get up one morning, despondent, and just go for a drive. Thinking of a park on the other side of town, I drove down the hill to Ithaca following an unfamiliar road—Cayuga Street—through town. Down that road, in the middle of Ithaca was First Presbyterian Church.[2] Curious about the church, I parked my car and went in the rear door—I am not sure that I even knew that it was Sunday. On the other side of that door, I must have had the look of death on my face because the music director stopped what he was doing and ushered me into the sanctuary to sing in the choir. In the choir were local college students from Ithaca who were home for the holidays and who invited me to a sledding party that evening. After sledding that evening, I began attending First Presbyterian Church and, when I later became a member, the elders encouraged me to work with their high school kids, which I did for a season.

My discovery of First Presbyterian Church that Sunday morning was a divine intervention and it enabled me to cope with the depression so prevalent at that point in my life. Life took another curve in the following year as I learned that Cornell had admitted me to their doctoral program provisionally—students were expected to maintain an A average in their classes, which proved difficult for me because Cornell adhered to a traditional grading policy. The grade competition was fierce and collaboration among students was not actively encouraged, as was true at Iowa State, in part, because of the Wall Street influence on campus. Wall Street traders at at point still competed in an open-outcry market which meant that a trader either got the bid or not, as is the nature of competitive bidding.[3] This competition sunk in for me when one day I organized a study group only to find when we got together that I was the only one who prepared to discuss the homework; later, members of the study group went on to ace the exam while I did not.

While I felt isolated from my competitive American peers, I increasingly felt at home with Hispanic students and I traded a relatively private office for a desk in the “United Nations” room where I shared a room with a large number of foreign students who studied with a beloved professor, who happened to be blind. The United Nations room was okay with me because I envisioned a career with the World Bank traveling throughout Latin America to visit investment projects and attend meetings, like some of my Washington friends. My goal of working in Latin American development meant that I fit right into my new office where I met colleagues who invited me to play in soccer games and to take part in other activities. One colleague also later became a roommate in the basement for a couple months before he took a job in Mexico City with the InterAmerican Development Bank. Meanwhile, during my first year at Cornell I studied Spanish and at the end of the year Cornell sent me to Puerto Rico for a summer’s study at the Estación Agrícola de Rio Piedras.

[1] Skiing was always a possibility in Ithaca because upstate New York has terribly cold winters with a lot of snow—including lake affect snow virtually every day as the cold wind blows across Lake Cayuga and deposits snow on Cornell which sits on the top an overlooking mountain.

[2] http://www.FirstPresIthaca.org.

[3] At one point, my marketing class visited a grain trading firm in New York City hosted by a trader who sorted through his mail while he talked with us—he never made eye contact with us.


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