Once there was a man who traveled through the searing heat of the desert, looking for a cool place where he might find refuge from the brutal sun, but there was none to be found. For many miles he continued his journey through the sand and rock of the barren wilderness, praying for the smallest hint of shade or the tiniest breath of wind to cool him, but none was found to comfort him.

He was about to despair of ever finding relief from the relentless heat when he spotted a massive oak tree shimmering on the horizon, its great size creating a large shady area beneath its welcoming arms. Thinking that he had found salvation at last, he ran toward the mighty tree and the respite it offered, but found that while he could draw near to it, he was unable to step into the shadow it cast around its base. Remarkably, the tree retreated from him, its cooling shade always just beyond his next step, always sliding away as if repelled by a magnet.

But the man refused to give up. Repeatedly he tried to enter into the shade of the massive oak. He tried circling its great girth—a task he found easy enough —but each time he would dart for the tree's great trunk it would slip away again. Anger burned within the man as he tried again and again to enter the shade, and with each successive failure his fury grew stronger and sharper and more clearly defined.

Finally, just as he was about to give up, he noticed something unusual. There, in the darkest and coolest part of the shade near the trunk, sat an old man, small and gray as ocean froth. He sat on a small bench watching him, sipping from a cool glass of water, obviously bemused by the man's futile efforts to enter the shade, but saying nothing. He appeared to be content to simply watch him in his futile efforts to cross into the shade.

"Old man," he finally shouted, "how did you enter into the shade? It's impossible!"

The old man smiled and shook his head. "Not impossible. Easy."

"Easy? I've been trying to enter for many hours but each time I try, the tree retreats from me. How have you done it?"

The old man took another sip of his water, the condensation on the outside of the glass making the man insane with thirst. "You cannot enter alone," he said at last.

"I cannot enter alone?" the man asked, bewildered.

The old man nodded. "You must bring others with you."

Frustration tore through the man afresh at the old man's words. "But how can I bring others? As you can see, there's no one else besides me!"

"Pray for those who also seek the shade. They will appear when you're ready to lead them," he answered simply as he took another long draw from his glass of water.

The man shook his head at the old man's words, certain that he was insane. "No! You can help me enter! Come here and help!"

"I cannot help you enter even if I wanted to, for the help you seek must come from within, not without."

The man walked away, confused and uncertain, but pondering the old man's words. For hours he wandered the desert, thinking about what they meant, weighing them in his heart. Finally deciding that perhaps the old man knew what he was talking about after all, he decided to take his advice and began praying. Self consciously at first but with growing determination, he prayed: "Almighty Spirit, I'm dying in this barren wilderness. Please bring others to me that I might find my way to safety, I beseech you."

The man repeated the prayer, dozens, even hundreds of times, calling upon Spirit to hear him, until he felt it pointless and was about to give up. After what seemed an eternity, however, he spotted another figure shimmering in the heat in the distance and he walked toward it. It was an old woman, her skin red and cracked by the sun, her frame as frail as a robin's egg. "Will you lead me to the shade of the great oak tree?" she asked him through parched lips, her words as soft and frail as the rest of her body.

The man swallowed hard. "I will do what I can," he said.

"What of me?" another man, appearing from somewhere behind the old woman, asked. "I too am parched. Will you show me how I can find relief from this heat as well?"

The man nodded as he watched in amazement as more people, some young and some old, some wealthy and others poor, some men and women of letters and others of the street, appeared on the horizon, all seeking the same thing. Finally, when a multitude had formed, he nodded in the direction of the oak tree. "Follow me," he said nervously. "I will take you to the shade of the tree."

With that, the man led the people towards the tree, drawing more confident with each step that this time he would be able to find shelter beneath its branches. However, as he reached the edge of the tree's great shadow, it again retreated from him, once more filling him with frustration and fury.

"Old man," he shouted into the coolness of the shade, "I thought you told me I could enter if I brought others, but I see now that your words are lies! The shade continues to resist me! Tell me why!"

A subtle smile curled the corners of the old man's mouth. "Tell me, have you brought these people here for your benefit, or for theirs?"

He was about to answer but stopped himself as he considered the old man's words. He wanted to deny the truth, of course, but he knew he had led the people to the edge of the shade only so he could enter himself. "I led them for my benefit," he admitted after a moment, the taste of honesty burning like bile inside his mouth.
"Tell me, what else can I do?"

The old man studied him for a moment. "The first shall be last. The last shall be first. That is the key."

Suddenly the man understood and he stepped aside for the old woman who had followed him from the desert. "You should go before me," he said, embarrassed at his own selfishness. The old woman smiled at him, gently stroked his cheek with her ancient, calloused hand, and stepped easily into the shade of the great oak. A second later, the second man did the same, but not before thanking the man for leading them. One by one each of the people took their turn stepping into the oak tree's cooling shadow and finding respite beneath its mighty limbs, filling the shadow to overflowing with their presence. For a moment the man thought there might not be room enough for him beneath the tree, so great was the multitude beneath it, but as he watched he saw the shadow of the tree grow in size until it was able to easily encompass them all. Finally, when the last of the people had entered, the man took a deep breath and stepped into the shadow of the great oak himself.

To his great relief, this time it did not retreat from him, but covered him with its cool darkness, sending the dust and heat of the desert fleeing from its shadow. For a long moment he stood in its perfect coolness, taking it all in. Finally, feeling refreshed and strengthened, he opened his eyes and looked for the old man so he might thank him. Remarkably, all the people were gone with the lone exception of the old man on the bench. He walked slowly towards him, curious as to what had happened.

"The multitude," he asked when he drew near, "where have they gone?"

"They found the relief they were looking for and moved on, just as you will once you're refreshed."

"I…I don't understand."

The old man took another sip of water and patted the bench next to him, signaling the man to sit down next to him. As he did so, the man instantly found himself with his own glass of iced water in one hand. He drank from it greedily, letting the cool liquid rejuvenate every corner of his soul and burn out every last bit of anger, fear and frustration that had been such a big part of his life for as long as he could remember. He also noticed that no matter how much he drank from the glass, it remained full, and he took comfort in the fact.

"The answer you seek is simple," the old man said after a long moment. "As long as you lived within yourself, seeking only to fulfill your selfish desires and denying others, you had no place within the shade. Once you turned outwards, however, and selflessly gave of yourself , the shade was able to easily enfold you. It's the lesson you have been longing to learn all your life, but were never able to until now."

With that the old man stood to his feet, sat his glass of water down, and began walking away.

"But where are you going?" he shouted after him. "Now that I understand, I have many question to ask you. Please don't go!"

The old man stopped and looked back. "My work is done and it's time I move on," he said with a smile. "You were the one I've been waiting for, and now that you're here, I'm free to explore other dimensions of myself."

"But what will I do here? I'm all alone. And I still have so many questions!"

The old man nodded. "I know you do, but the answers are within if you search for them. And as for being alone, how is that possible? Is not the great tree here to keep you company?"

With that the old man walked away until he was lost in the shimmering heat of the sun. The man slowly sat back down upon the bench, took another long draw off his drink, and pondered the meaning of the old man's words. As he did so, however, he spotted a figure on the horizon, moving determinedly towards him. It was a young man, his countenance stern and angry, moving purposefully toward the shade of the great oak. The man watched knowingly as the angry man tried to cross into its cooling shade, only to see it retreat from him each time he tried. He could see his anger growing more defined with each failed attempt to enter. "Tell me, you in there," he shouted, "how is it I cannot enter into the shade of the tree? It withdraws from me each time I step towards it!"

The man smiled as he took a sip of his water and looked up at the man. Finally he understood the meaning of the great oak.

"It's easy to enter the shade, only you cannot enter it alone," he answered with a smile.