"When in doubt, do the positive." This is my mother's famous adage, the most useful rule she ever taught me. It's important not to think too much about it, lest you get all twisted up with what, exactly, "the positive" is. You know it when you see it.

Here is a simple application. Should you or shouldn't you accept your friend's invitation for dinner tonight? You want to, but you're so tired from a long day's work, and the truth is you don't much like that new obnoxious boyfriend of hers who is sure to be there. You could just blow it off. You could stay home and curl up with your cat.

When in doubt, do the positive. Just say yes. The positive is always: action. Never stagnation. The positive argues for courage, and courage encourages growth.

I have gotten to like more of my friends' obnoxious boyfriends with this rule. Also, what about that new job offer? But it's so . . . scary. (Do it!) That crazy idea you had to learn to play the violin? But you're so . . . old. (Do it!) Here's a tricky one: Should you eat that bowl of ice cream or stay on your diet? "The positive" inevitably involves some judgment calls, but, all in all, I've found that my mom's rule makes easier work of life's dilemmas.

Problem is, I don't always think of it. This is the delicate way of adages and other wise sayings, whether they come from ancient holy books or dead poets or regular old moms. They sit there, ready to guide your life, but first you have to call them up. It's not always so automatic. At least it sure wasn't yesterday, when I found myself all tangled up in a quandary.

Should I or shouldn't I call Dan, my carpenter, on the eve of his daughter's surgery? Should I call him and say, um, "Good luck"? If Dan were just a regular old friend, this would be easy. I'd bake a casserole -- or buy one -- and have it waiting in the fridge with a note. Or I'd go with him to the hospital and sit in the waiting room. It would depend on the nature of the friendship, of course. But how personal do you get with a person who is in your employment? Where is the line? The thing that kept going through my mind was, well, he has a close-knit family, and I don't want to get in the way. The last thing he needs to think about is some customer who's been fretting over the roofline of the new porch he's about to build. I worried that if I called him to express my good wishes, he'd think maybe I was really just calling for more roofline advice or, worse, to nag him to get the plans done.

Better to steer clear, allow him his family time, uninterrupted. That's what I decided was the right thing to do. In times of strain it's easiest on people to maintain clean boundaries. One less mess to worry about. This is what I decided was right and good, in one breath, and then in the next: But this is Dan! This is the man my children call "Uncle Dan" and whose children come to ride our pony. This is the man who spent nearly every day last summer renovating our kitchen, and then, when he fell off a customer's roof last winter, resulting in several crushed bones, we all rallied and took up a collection to help his family through the tough financial times.

Truth was, I was worried about his daughter. This was a serious operation. I was worried about his wife, his son. Did it matter? I'm just a customer. This wasn't about me. Why would I call them to say that I cared? Who cared if I cared?

My conscience was thus tied into a tight little knot -- until the next evening. The surgery had been that morning. My chance to call with good wishes had well passed.

Then my mom called. I already knew what she wanted: to talk about whether or not to make the five-hour trek to visit me next week. She'd been fretting over this one. She'd been feeling so rickety. Would she be able to make the trip? She wanted to see my garden so badly.

"Mom!" I said, as if to silence her. "When in doubt, do the positive."

Duh. I think it hit us both with a thud -- a brainstorm we'd simply forgotten about. Funny that even the person who came up with the adage in the first place couldn't call it up when needed. So, my mom decided to come. And I decided I should have called Dan. Who doesn't want to know that people care? It was so simple.

So now here it is, morning. I'm just getting out of the shower to find a message on my machine from Dan. He's calling with a porch question, and news that "everything went well yesterday."

I call him back immediately. "That's great news!" I say, thanking him for the update. And now, should I tell him this, or shouldn't I? It's a small thing, no big deal, but too corny? "Listen," I say, finally. "I was praying for her all day."

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.