Irene Villa lost her legs in a terror attack. A psychologist, writer and competitive athlete, she advocates faith, facing it and forgiveness
Irene Villa has a magnetic personality. She survived a terrorist attack by the ETA group in Madrid in which she lost both legs, but she won the “affection and love” of many people who follow her, who read her writings and who are encouraged by her testimony.
In an interview with Aleteia, Irene tells why she forgives, and how she advocates for a more humane world.
You are a psychologist, a writer and a journalist. Do you think people empathize with you?
It is important to have passed through certain things in order for other people who are in the same struggle to believe you, hear you and say, “Well it’s true; if she can do it, why can’t I?” For me, the people who came to see me when I had my amputations were essential. It’s true that at times the only way to help certain people is to have passed through it yourself, and to have overcome it.
Many people said to me, “Don’t worry; someday you will learn to walk again,” and I said “Yes, yes,” but doubts remained. … However, I remember a man who had been hit by a subway train. He had lost his legs, but he could walk, and I said to myself, “Well, if he can, I can too.”
I think I am lucky to have had a series of experiences in my life that make other people say, “Well, if she managed it …”
In truth, [each of us will go through difficult situations], and it will be hard or easy to bear depending on how you face it. I have always taken everything with a practical, happy, cheerful attitude, and with a phrase that my son often says: “It’s no big deal, Mom.” In the end, I think this has been very useful in my life in order to overcome everything that has happened to me, with this simple approach. I always simplify everything, always with an optimistic and hopeful attitude. I think these are the fundamental tools for anyone’s life.
What role does faith play in Irene Villa’s life?
Faith is fundamental. Faith goes where sports, your head, your mind … can’t go. That is hope, faith, an infinite force which is much more powerful than all the rest. And I have always been a very earthly person, I must admit; I have always believed in being human, in our capabilities. As a psychologist, I also believe in our thoughts, but it’s true that there is a place where only faith can go, believing in yourself and believing in something greater than you.
And the people who have gone before us—do you feel like they are taking care of you?
Totally, I feel that I have lived that experience and I feel protected and blessed and supported by an angel or by a company of angels, as my husband says, throughout all the things that I do. He says to me, “You don’t have one angel; you have a company of them, given all the things you dare to do and nothing happens to you,” or even if something does happen, I keep going. Of course, I believe that we all have a guardian angel that protects us.
There are people with a dark sense of humor who refer to you all the time. They even call you the “explosive woman.” Do you bother them?
I think so. Today, with social networks and with Twitter, it’s easier to criticize famous people too; someone always tweets about them, and there are some people who get involved, who get angry and even respond. There’s no point: there will always be people who like you, and people who don’t. Criticisms are out there, and I don’t pay attention to them unless they are constructive.
As far as the jokes go … it’s never bothered me. It didn’t hurt me even in adolescence, when you’re more vulnerable, let alone now, at the best time of my life. And dark humor exists, and when dealing with handicaps, with terrorist attacks, with people who have died before their time and in a horrible way, there is dark humor.
Can humor be a form of release and salvation?
A sense of humor helps a great deal to overcome any situation. I’ve gone to visit many amputees in hospitals and I’ve seen that people with a sense of humor will make much faster progress than those who without it. Someone who can make fun of a lost leg, or jokes about not having smelly feet, moves on much faster than someone who can’t.
You insist a lot on not being a victim. But you weren’t guilty of anything yet your life was truncated. Have you ever felt like a victim?
We are not victims; we are responsible. I can’t hold on to what happened to me or what I lost or what they took from me. Your life begins today and only you hold the reins of your life. Only you decide what you want to do, which decision you want to make. Face your life straight on.
Irene Villa has forgiven. What’s the origin of the motivation behind this act of forgiveness?
Forgiveness is something internal, but it is a “click” that you either decide to do it or not. It’s a qualitative leap. If you decide to forgive, you are the main beneficiary, because hate only hurts the person who feels it; the person you hate is not touched by your hate. Consequently, the person who forgives, forgives himself. We all have something we need to forgive ourselves for, and we are the ones who benefit.
[…] it’s very difficult to love someone who doesn’t forgive or who has hate in his or her heart. And just as I like to love, I like to be loved. Hate is a wall that you build in your heart and that you have to tear down. Love is what drives everything.
When love is present … how does life change?
Love has always been the key to everything. In fact, after that terrorist attack, when my mother told me, “You don’t have any legs, but you have love,” I said: “My life starts here.” It’s true that ever since I met the man who is now my husband, Juan Pablo Lauro, well, it has been a revolution: creating a family, which is what I had always wanted, having children — that’s what moves everything so that everything else can go well, your work. … In fact, I began to win medals when he was already in my life; he strengthened my confidence. … This team that is created by a couple, in a marriage, is fundamental for everything else to come out well.
You [and your husband] are a team in everything, and you like to make this support visible.
In fact, thanks to him I am working in a lot of places, and thanks to him, the Irene Villa Foundation was born. It’s something that he’s been talking to me about since he met me, and it looked a bit difficult to me — and in fact it has been very difficult — but it is really thrilling to be able to help people to fulfill their dreams, just as the foundation also helped me to fulfill my dreams in the area of sports.
It’s a new and even much more exciting challenge to be able to help to integrate people with handicaps in the world of labor. My goals were personal, and this challenge consists in helping others to see everything they have given me. It’s much greater, and I hope it grows. For the moment, they are isolated projects, step by step, with the help of my sister, of my husband, of my son’s godfather; it’s very much a family project, but we hope that someday it will be more extensive.
Don’t you ever get tired?
(She laughs.) That too, but I love the activity, being in motion. I believe that activity is one of the pillars of life, and when you aren’t working you are helping someone, and if not, you are writing, reading, learning or giving. But of course I get tired, especially with two children, but sports help me to release stress — swimming, for example, or when we can get away to the mountains, or to the beach or the sea as well. I’m human; we also take our days off. In order for you to be able to make people happy, you have to take care of your own happiness. Swimming, travels, the spirit …
As a journalist, what is the question you would most like to ask if you were interviewing Irene Villa?
I think it would be a question that they asked me a short time ago: “Are you afraid of anything?” Because it’s true that I’ve never been afraid of anything; especially after that terrorist attack, you think nothing worse can happen to you, which gives you the advantage or the fortune of living without fear. But it is true that, since my children were born, I do have that thing, which I wish I didn’t have: when your children are skiing, you are more careful. But fear is cured with faith. I know if I educate them with optimism, faith, values and hope, that fear becomes very small.
I have always been quite crazy with sports, and it’s true that motherhood makes you more prudent and makes you pass that prudence on to your children too. Motherhood is thrilling, the best thing in our lives.
What will Irene Villa look like when she gets older?
I see myself — I hope — communicating through books too. It’s a very powerful and beautiful way to work. When I read a book and I think about the author, I think, “How beautiful to be able to help and touch people’s hearts.” I also see myself, I hope, with more children, and of course, grandchildren. My mother is the happiest woman in the world today with five grandchildren … I am going to follow in her footsteps.